Sudders, Bharel talk Massachusetts coronavirus vaccine equity issues with Black and Latino caucus

The Baker administration’s top health officials met with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus on Monday amid mounting criticism over equity issues in the state’s rocky coronavirus vaccine rollout.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel attended the meeting that also played as a precursor of sorts to the larger legislative oversight hearing administration officials — including Gov. Charlie Baker — will testify at on Thursday, caucus members told the Herald.

“They’re going to be well prepared for Thursday,” said state Rep. Russell Holmes, D-Mattapan. “They’ve gotten grilled by the caucus, they’ve gotten grilled by many electeds already.”

Baker and his team are under fire for a vaccine rollout that’s been rife with technical glitches, abrupt reallocations of doses and unequal distribution to communities of color and those hardest hit by the pandemic.

Caucus members pushed for a centralized pre-registration system for vaccine appointments — state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, has also filed a bill to create such a system — but Holmes said the state “pushed back a little bit and said they needed to have the site to be more sound before they add any more features to it, so we kind of agreed to that.”

“It was very disheartening that a young lady out on maternity leave can make something simpler than what we’re paying people millions of dollars to do,” Holmes said of the Arlington software developer who built a centralized appointment website. “The simpler we can make the website, the better.”

The state has also taken steps to improve equity in access, including by targeting doses toward 20 of the most impacted municipalities.

But inequities remain. Weekly data DPH last updated on Thursday shows Black residents accounted for just 5.1% of those who had received at least one dose of vaccine and 5.5% of those fully vaccinated and Hispanics were even lower. White residents, on the other hand, accounted for 66.5% of first doses and 64.7% of those fully vaccinated.

A gray area of “unknown” ethnicities accounts for nearly 19% of first and second doses, something caucus members said could be improved by providing zip code data for those who have received their shots.

“We can almost tell you who got it, if they were Black, Brown or white, just by zip code,” Holmes said. “So that was one of the big asks that we’re hoping they can get done.”