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Penn Democrats hosted a panel on Feb 4. with top row (from left to right): Tarik Khan and Harald Schmidt. Bottom row (from left to right): Ashlee Murray and Jonathan Moreno.

Credit: Max Mester

Penn Democrats recently hosted a panel with multiple healthcare professionals who spoke on challenges of the vaccine rollout process and how they expect the Biden-Harris administration to tackle the pandemic in the upcoming months.

The Zoom event, hosted on Feb. 4 and attended by about 30 people, featured four healthcare professionals: Medical Ethics and Health Policy professor Jonathan Moreno, who served as a member of former President Barack Obama’s transition team, Harald Schmidt, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy in the Perelman School of Medicine, Ashlee Murray, an attending physician in the Emergency Department at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and Tarik Khan, the president of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association and a Ph.D. student in the School of Nursing.  

The panelists discussed tools to identify communities that should be prioritized in the vaccine rollout process, widespread public mistrust of COVID-19 vaccines, and what the overall response to the pandemic may look like under a presidential administration with starkly different response policies than previously seen.

"I thought our panelists did a great job of addressing general concerns about the virus," College first-year and Penn Dems Legislative Director Anusha Mathur, who organized the panel, said. "They did a great job of giving their unique angles based on their unique backgrounds that didn't overwhelm attendees with a horrible state of the virus. It was a lot more constructive than that."

Schmidt and Murray kicked off the event with a discussion about vaccination rollout efforts, specifically on methods to ensure how the vaccine can reach marginalized communities which have already been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. 

“We still have to make sure that we allocate [vaccines] in ways that people who are worse off get it before people who are better off.” Schmidt said.

Schmidt suggested the use of disadvantage indices — sets of data that compile typical income and quality of housing, education, and other factors to determine, on average, how vulnerable the people living in certain geographic areas are — to identify which communities should be prioritized for the vaccine. 

“We have access points that work for people's life schedules in terms of the working hours,” Schmidt, who has faced widespread criticism after saying in The New York Times that it is reasonable to prioritize essential workers ahead of older adults, said. “Some people can stand in line for three hours; you can’t do that if you don’t have flexible working hours. [So] you increase the numbers of vaccines available to people in worse-off communities.”

During the panel, one student raised the issue that some healthcare workers have been reluctant to get vaccinated. Many healthcare workers have reportedly refused to get vaccinated in fear of potential side effects and because they lack faith that the vaccines are safe, despite scientific evidence proving these claims are baseless.

In response, Khan, who has reportedly performed more than 1,000 COVID-19 tests mostly in Philadelphia's healthcare deserts, criticized the Trump administration for generating widespread distrust towards the vaccine.

“[This is] the ramification of having an administration that you can't trust, that very possibly would have put a vaccine out just so they can have [the vaccine] before the election was a real concern,” Khan said to the panel. “And so people feeling that this was rushed, that this isn't safe — those are legitimate concerns."

Schmidt agreed, and presented examples of actions by the Trump administration that may have perpetuated the misguided notion of a rushed vaccine development process, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's vaccine effort titled "Operation Warp Speed."

After the panel, Murray spoke to The Daily Pennsylvanian about the need for local governments to vet the organizations with which they partner in providing vaccines, adding that Philadelphia's former partnership with the controversy-laden Philly Fighting COVID would not help vaccination rates in the local community.

“I think we need to get trusted partners into the community themselves. I think there are a lot of trusted healthcare partners, like CHOP,” she said. “You'd have to have the medical experience of how to do the vaccine, but you’d also have to have a partner that the community trusts as an institution.”

Despite the various obstacles the United States is facing with its fragmented vaccine distribution process, the panelists expressed a consensus that the Biden-Harris administration will handle the pandemic better than the previous administration. 

“As healthcare providers, we've really been on the brunt of it. [There’s] the atrocious national response to fighting the pandemic, in terms of testing, ensuring PPE,” Khan said. “So it's really been heartening with this current administration, the Biden administration, that they are making the right moves.”

Schmidt, in particular, stated that it was great that the government is now heeding the advice of health experts such as Anthony Fauci.

“I just could not be more optimistic about the fact that [the Biden administration] is sincere about getting this right and thinking about the right tools to get in place, which has to do with data,” Schmidt said.

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