March 16, 2021

At SASC Hearing, United States Northern Command Commits to Helping Improve Vaccine Distribution to Communities of Color Hit Hardest by the COVID-19 Pandemic

Video of Exchange (Youtube)

Washington, DC - During today's Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned General Glen D. VanHerck, Commander, U.S. Northern Command, about efforts to administer vaccinations to communities of color and Native communities through the Command's work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In response to Senator Warren, General Glen D. VanHerck made a commitment to help communities of color hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic when FEMA is discussing deployment sites with NORTHCOM. 

Senator Warren also questioned General VanHerck about how the U.S. Northern Command is countering Russian misinformation campaigns aimed at reducing the number of Americans getting vaccinated. General Van Herck confirmed that there have been discussions about how to educate and also exploit or expose such disinformation.

Transcript: United States Southern Command and United States Northern Command
U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee
Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Chairman Reed: Let me recognize Senator Warren by Webex. 

Senator Warren: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and thank you to Admiral Faller and General VanHerck for being here today.

We appreciate the work that you're doing.

General VanHerck, COVID-19 vaccinations are well underway all across our country, and the DOD is helping people get vaccinated. Each day millions more Americans are receiving hope in the form of these vaccines as we move closer to defeating this pandemic.

But the data show that the vaccines aren't reaching every community equally. Death rates for Black Americans and Native Americans, Native Alaskans are nearly twice as high as the death rates in white communities. But the vaccines have disproportionately gone to White Americans. Although vaccine demographic data are incomplete at this point, it appears that only about 7 percent of the 65 million administered doses have gone to Black Americans.

So, General VanHerck, several thousands of troops you command have been deployed to assist the federal government's vaccination efforts. Can you explain how Northern Command made decisions about the deployment of vaccine teams to ensure that communities of color are getting the vaccines that they desperately need?

General VanHerck: Senator, absolutely. United States Northern Command does not make the decision where teams go. That's due through the FEMA process, and we answer to their mission assignment and go to the locations determined by that inner agency process.

Senator Warren: But, fair enough. Do you know if FEMA is prioritizing communities of color?

General VanHerck: In my discussions with the acting director, Mr. Fenton, they do take all considerations in from state and local officials, governors that are asking for support, and factoring in those specifics. And based on the need of where the transmission rates are the highest, they do take all that in from my discussions.

Senator Warren: Well, it's harder to explain why we're down at 7 percent of vaccination rate for Black Americans. Can I ask you to commit that in future discussions, as you're talking about how to deploy these teams, that you support making sure that we're making adequate vaccination efforts in communities of color?

General VanHerck: Senator, I commit to you that I'm agnostic with regards to where we provide support and I'll work closely with the FEMA team to make sure we do that.

Senator Warren: Well, I want to hear that you're not agnostic but that you're really committed to helping in the communities of color that are being hit hardest and where we're seeing the highest death rates.


Senator Warren: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

General VanHerck: I apologize. I am fully committed. I thought I said that the second part.

Senator Warren: Okay.

General VanHerck: Absolutely.

Senator Warren: I hope so. I'm also concerned about reports of Russian misinformation campaigns against the vaccine that are aimed at reducing the number of Americans willing to get vaccinated. Can you just say a word about what strategies is Northern Command using to combat this misinformation?

General VanHerck: Senator, it's an information in education campaign primarily within our own forces. I'm happy to report to you that we have approximately 85% accepting-- acceptance rate within the command. In my discussions with the Secretary of Defense and within the inner agency, we talked and shared the lessons learned about how to educate and also exploit or expose the disinformation. So, I think that's crucial to combine both the education aspect and exposing the disinformation.

Senator Warren: Thank you. This pandemic hasn't affected all Americans equally - Black and Brown communities have disproportionately suffered from COVID-19 and its effects will likely be felt for years.

Northern Command and the federal government's vaccination efforts must prioritize the hardest hit communities and I hope that you'll continue to work hard to ensure that the vaccine goes to those who need it the most. 

Thank you very much, and thank you, Mr. Chairman.