Amid heated discussion and ongoing debate on a COVID-19 vaccine -- how soon it will be available and who should get it -- the Catholic Health Association has a lot to say.
The group, which is based in St. Louis and oversees more than 2,200 Catholic hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the U.S., highlighted its stance on the vaccine's development and distribution in a September letter to a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
The letter, signed by Mercy Sister Mary Haddad, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, stressed that Catholic health officials appreciated the committee's work outlining the eventual distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. She said the draft outline shows respect for human dignity and recognizes the role health care providers and communities have in vaccine distribution.
It also "emphasizes distributive justice by ensuring the vaccine is provided in a manner to not only save lives, but also address health inequities."
Sister Haddad said CHA believes that "all people, barring exceptional circumstances, have a responsibility to be vaccinated" as a means to protect vulnerable people and broader public health.
She stressed this responsibility is not just for one's own health either but "more fundamentally" is rooted "in our obligation to protect through solidarity those who are most at risk or unable to be vaccinated. The development of an ethical framework for distributing vaccines is therefore critical so that individuals and families have equitable access to vaccines and are able to trust in their effectiveness."
The organization's letter went on to applaud the draft framework set up by the National Academies of Sciences to help policymakers determine how to equitably distribute a potential COVID-19 vaccine and it also urged the committee to "make further recommendations on the crucial role that public health, nonprofits, community leaders and other religious and social organizations can play in implementing" this plan.
Sister Haddad noted a set of principles CHA developed earlier this year about the production and allocation of a COVID-19 vaccine stemming from Catholic social teaching that this effort should do no harm.
With this view in mind, CHA said vaccines should:
-- Be safe and ethically tested;
-- Be demonstrated to be scientifically effective;
-- Respect human dignity in their development;
-- Be equitably distributed with priority to those at most risk.
"Once there is assurance that safe vaccines are available, distribution should first consider populations identified as most at risk for suffering negative health outcomes from COVID-19. At-risk populations will vary from place to place," the guidelines said.
These guidelines also emphasize that in many areas "elderly, racial and ethnic minorities bear the greatest burdens. State and local officials, in conjunction with health care providers and community leaders, should identify which populations are most at risk in their jurisdictions, and they should act to protect them."
These vaccine guidelines also stressed that efforts to develop and distribute effective vaccines should be based on the principle of solidarity. In other words: "Give all people access to the vaccine while minimizing global and domestic competition which drives up prices for limited supplies."
The CHA guidelines also said vaccine distribution should involve local communities and they urged governmental entities, health care providers, nonprofit organizations, and religious and community leaders to include "individuals and communities who are often neglected or forgotten."