Panelists participate in an online forum on vaccine equity sponsored by the United Way of Lancaster County on Friday, May 14, 2021. Top: Brenda Buescher, Jon Carlson, Dr. Cherise Hamblin; Middle: Kevin Ressler, Susan Baldrige (moderator), Dan Jurman; Bottom: Luz Colon.

Panelists called for a much stronger focus on racial and social justice in Lancaster County's Covid-19 vaccine rollout, and in public policy in general, during an online forum Friday morning. (Video)

"If you are in a decision-making place, make decisions that advantage people of color, period," said Dr. Cherise Hamblin, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health and founder of Patients R Waiting.

"It is not unfair," she said; rather, it's essential to remedy the effects of systemic racism.

Watch: Forum highlights

Friday's forum, titled "Vaccines — Equity, Access Hesitancy," was sponsored by the United Way of Lancaster County. It is the second in a series of forums, "Conversations about OUR Community."

Brenda Buescher, health promotion specialist for Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, presented statistics on Covid-19 case rates and vaccination. According to state data, vaccination rates for Whites exceed those for Blacks and Hispanics in Lancaster County, but the disparities are smaller than for Pennsylvania as a whole.

Nationwide, Covid-19 fatality rates for minority groups have dramatically outpaced those for Whites. In Lancaster County, however, deaths by racial and ethnic group have been roughly in line with population numbers.

This data on Covid-19 vaccination was presented during Friday's forum. (Source: Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health)
This data on Covid-19 vaccination was presented during Friday's forum. (Source: Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health)

Widespread lack of trust

Luz Colon, executive director of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, said many Latinos are apprehensive about the data collection in Covid-19 testing and vaccination, and whether the information patients provide will remain private or could be used against them.

Jon Carlson, lead pastor of Forest Hills Mennonite Church, said he sees trust issues among White evangelicals over the vaccines, often based on misunderstanding or misinformation. He said he finds it frustrating, but reminds himself that "what people need when they're feeling these concerns is not sanctimony, not anger; but they need compassion."

Hamblin said people of color have every reason to distrust medical organizations, given the mistreatment and discrimination they experience — mistreatment that is current, not historical.

She and Dan Jurman, executive director of the Governor's Office of Advocacy & Reform, said resources to combat Covid-19 such as Lancaster County's mass vaccination center, are not being placed in the areas of greatest need or designed around the needs of those area's populations.

Matching resources to need

Moderator Susan Baldrige, executive director of the Partnership for Public Health, criticized Lancaster County's decision to build one mass vaccination center, rather than several smaller ones as previously planned.

County officials have said they determined it would be most efficient to have a single site, and that it is only one component of a larger strategy that includes targeted efforts to reach marginal populations.

While racial disparities are undeniable, class matters, too, Jurman said, noting that rural Whites make up the largest number of people in poverty in Lancaster County.

Asked about solutions, panelists called for empowering marginalized communities, reaching out to them and following their lead.

"They have to be in charge of that process," Jurman said.

They said more resources need to go to organizations such as Union Community Care, which serve the neediest populations but often have the leanest budgets and struggle to retain staff and afford supplies.

Donors can help, said Kevin Ressler, the United Way's President and CEO, by being willing take some risk and fund upstart, cutting-edge organizations that are making a difference.

"Philanthropy needs to change," he said: Too often, he said, it's easier to stick with the safe choice, the status quo.

Hamblin said Patients R Waiting is poised to launch a vaccine initiative in collaboration with Union Community Care. Plans are to operate it on weekends over the next 10 weeks.

"We can do this," she said.

Full video: Vaccines - Equity, Access, Hesitancy

(Editor's Note: The United Way of Lancaster County is the sponsor of One United Lancaster.) 

Tim Stuhldreher