By Alice Miranda Ollstein 04/08/2021 05:00 AM EDT
A new effort by Planned Parenthood to distribute Covid vaccines to underserved communities is reviving tensions with anti- abortion forces that have long protested the reproductive health group’s involvement in the pandemic response.
Planned Parenthood is partnering with five states, including New York and California, to give out shots at its clinics, set up pop-up sites in outlying areas and deploy mobile vaccination vans to marginalized communities. It’s also launching a $2 million campaign in English and Spanish to promote vaccinations and combat hesitancy.
“Our outreach is focused on increasing the vaccine confidence among Black, Latino, AAPI populations, young people… to help close some of the racial and socioeconomic gaps that we’ve seen already in the impact of Covid but also certainly in the distribution and access to the vaccines,” the group’s president, Alexis McGill Johnson, told POLITICO. “That’s where I think our best lane is in this work.”
But the effort, dubbed “Protect Every Body,” could spark a new fight with abortion foes who oppose Planned Parenthood’s efforts to raise its profile in the pandemic response — and possibly tap taxpayer funds — while maintaining abortion services during the health crisis. Republican governors in Ohio, Texas and Mississippi last spring cited a shortage of medical supplies in trying to close abortion clinics, in some instances threatening jail time if they didn’t shut down and donate protective gear and other necessities to local hospitals. Those efforts were halted by federal courts.
“Participation in vaccine distribution gives them the benefit of appearing as a legitimate health care provider when they are not,” said Mallory Quigley, a spokesperson for Susan B. Anthony List, one of several groups that has also objected to the group receiving small business aid from Congress and allotments of masks, gloves and other protective equipment from state stockpiles.
Planned Parenthood’s vaccine efforts come as the country grapples with how to quickly vaccinate as many people as possible as new coronavirus variants spread across the country. The group’s affiliates in Minnesota, Montana, New York, California and Washington are giving out shots in their own health centers, deploying mobile clinics to rural areas and running pop-up sites in restaurants and drive-through parking lots.
Outside of Spokane, Wash., Planned Parenthood is sending mobile vans to deliver vaccines to farmworkers and warehouse staff, most of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Most lack transportation to get to state vaccination sites and live in congregate housing that puts them at a higher risk of contracting Covid. Though many want to get vaccinated, the local Planned Parenthood affiliate is also working to combat misinformation about the effects of the vaccines.
“There are stories people tell each other or see on social media that the vaccine is a government experiment or contains a chip to track them or that they’re being injected with the actual virus,” said Lili Navarrete, a spokesperson with Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho. “We have to educate around that.”
Planned Parenthood is getting Covid-19 vaccine doses through state and local health departments, not directly from the federal government like federally qualified health centers and retail pharmacies. And its partnership with the Biden administration as part of HHS’ Covid-19 Community Corps — a coalition of hundreds of organizations including sports leagues and labor unions working to convince Americans to get vaccinated — involves no federal funding.
Washington state’s Deputy Secretary for Covid-19 Response Lacy Fehrenbach says contracting with Planned Parenthood is a key part of its “all hands on deck” approach.
“Our goal is to make the vaccine accessible and convenient,” she said. “We need to vaccinate millions of people in a short period of time, so we need to use the provider networks that are already trusted across our state.”
But conservative lawmakers and anti-abortion groups who oppose any taxpayer dollars going to the organization say the vaccine work sets a troubling precedent.
Kristi Hamrick with Students for Life of America called the group’s involvement in vaccination distribution “really appalling but completely unsurprising.”
“You can always count on Planned Parenthood’s ability to get taxpayer funding no matter the problem,” she said.
The “Protect. Every. Body.” campaign involves no government resources, but public funding of Planned Parenthood has been a volatile issue for decades — despite a longstanding federal ban on using taxpayer dollars for abortion. Conservative-led states have tried to expel the group from their Medicaid programs, and the Trump administration in 2019 cut off federal Title X family planning grants to organizations that referred patients for abortions, prompting Planned Parenthood to withdraw from the program.
Planned Parenthood’s past work on other infectious diseases has also generated push back from the political right. In 2016, a push by Senate Republicans to exclude Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers from funding to combat the Zika epidemic held up passage of an aid bill for months.
This time, officials say the urgency of getting vaccines out could alter the dynamic of the fight and improve public perception of the organization.
“We’re reaching folks who might not otherwise have thought of Planned Parenthood as being able to provide services such
as these,” said Ashley Leonard, the Health Center Systems Manager at Planned Parenthood Pasadena and San Gabriel Valley. “Hopefully years in the future, someone can look back positively on their experience getting a vaccine through us.”