Two members of an Oregon group charged with deciding who gets coronavirus vaccines next received racist, hateful and upsetting messages, prompting state officials to close public access to the group’s last two meetings, state officials revealed Friday.
The Vaccine Advisory Committee’s explicit focus has been to bring equity to the vaccine equation, speaking for underserved communities and helping combat the racism ingrained in Oregon’s health care system.
But the group appeared to be the victim of some of what it was fighting, with one member receiving “multiple hateful, racist emails” and another getting “upsetting communications,” a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority said.
“It was just so disheartening. These are folks who volunteered their time,” Rachael Banks, the public health director, told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “They’re there advocating on behalf of their communities.”
The 27-member committee made its final recommendations Jan. 28 as part of its eighth meeting open to the public. State officials said they learned about the emails the following day, prompting them to close access to meetings Tuesday and Thursday in the interests of the members’ comfort and safety, and because the formal recommendations had already been finalized.
Banks said she believes members were more comfortable speaking openly during the closed meetings. But the lack of transparency prevented the public from hearing members’ concerns about the process, including the little time they had to come up with recommendations and what one member said was a desire for some form of oversight of how vaccines are allocated locally.
Members did not ask the health authority to close the meeting to the public, Banks said, but multiple people on the committee were concerned when they learned about the racist emails.
The agency acknowledged the fine line it has to walk when choosing to close public access to meetings, which previously had been live streamed or recorded for online viewing.
State officials opted not to even take notes from Thursday’s meeting.
“There is a transparency and community impact when that kind of violent and intimidating speech makes it difficult for volunteers to serve and advocate for the broader community,” spokesman Robb Cowie said. “We’re always navigating these kinds of tensions and dilemmas about, ‘How do we protect volunteers?’ ‘How do we also ensure an open forum and a transparent forum?’”
As part of the committee’s official work, members at one point said they wanted communities of Black, Indigenous and people of color to be vaccinated after the governor’s priority groups, which include health care workers, teachers and seniors. But in the group’s final decision-making meeting last week, state officials said that would be impossible for legal reasons.
Banks acknowledged the equity group’s timeline was “fast” and explained that the legal analysis wasn’t provided until the last meeting because the group only proposed prioritizing BIPOC communities later in the process.
“At that point, we began having conversations and understanding the legal implications of that,” Banks said. “But I’m sure that it didn’t feel like enough time for people.”
The committee’s final recommendations said people with underlying conditions, frontline workers, people in custody and people living in low-income and group senior housing should be vaccinated next.
The recommendations included a general request that health agencies commit to racial and ethnic equity. The group also asked that local health agencies “identify, engage and serve people who our health care system has often failed.”
The Oregon Health Authority is reviewing the committee’s recommendations about vaccination order. The earliest anyone from the list is expected to be eligible, aside from prisoners, is this spring.