The NAACP and Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal complaint alleging the state of Mississippi did not adequately dispense federal COVID-19 relief funds to combat the pandemic’s outsized impact on communities of color.
The complaint, filed on behalf of both the national organization and state chapter of the NAACP, says the state’s actions violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after state officials “deliberately shut out advocacy groups” from receiving federal funds to address the pandemic in the minority community.
“The State of Mississippi and other public and private organizations in the state received $15.7 billion in COVID-19 related funding, yet the state has continued to provide a discriminatory program, resulting in disproportionate rates of sickness, hospitalization, and death in Black, Indigenous, and brown communities,” the NAACP complaint says.
The complaint continues: “Mississippi has engaged in unlawful race discrimination when it failed to plan, distribute, or otherwise provide COVID-19 vaccine access in an equitable manner breaching its legal duty to ensure nondiscrimination in federally assisted emergency preparedness, response, mitigation, and recovery programs.”
When asked for comment, State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said his agency, the Mississippi State Department of Health, recognized the COVID-19 racial health disparities early and worked hard to correct them.
“Although the state encountered numerous challenges to advancing the equity mission — including early vaccine access, trust issues, and technological barriers to vaccine appointments — a statewide coalition of agency, faith, medical and community leaders was able to deliver much needed information, vaccines and PPE to minority populations across the state,” Dobbs said.
The results of those efforts, Dobbs said, are apparent today: a higher vaccine rate among Black Mississippians than whites in the state, a higher vaccine rate among Black Mississippians than Black Americans at large, and a lower COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Mississippians than whites. The vaccine rate for Hispanics, Dobbs added, was near equal to that of white Mississippians.
The pandemic, in its earlier days, did have disparate effects on Mississippians of color — in mortality rates, in spread of the virus and in vaccine rates once they became available. Dobbs and other state officials were brutally honest about those racial disparities and said they worked hard to address them.
But the complaint alleges that as the pandemic wore on, state leaders did not develop a strategy to ensure a higher vaccination rate in the state — especially in the minority community — and did not provide a plan to improve the vaccination rate.
The complaint also points out the state’s health care system has built-in problems that disproportionally impact minorities. For instance, the complaint says more of a plan was needed to aid minorities in being transported to vaccine locations.
“Just as Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves has disavowed the existence of systemic racism, so too has the state’s COVID-19 vaccine program failed to account for these systemic deficiencies and vulnerabilities,” the complaint said. “The state’s vaccine program discriminates against communities on the basis of race, color, or national origin, even when disparities in access to COVID-19 testing foreshadowed these problems.”
The NAACP is asking the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights “to immediately investigate and remedy the unlawful and ongoing discrimination.”
“We would like immediate and lasting changes to vaccine policies and procedures to ensure economically and socially marginalized groups have access to vaccine programs in their areas, including urban and rural communities that have inadequate or substandard access to private health care facilities, hospitals, and pharmacies,” said Rev. Robert James, president of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP.