As the coronavirus pandemic intensified, many communities in the United States experienced shortages of ventilators, intensive care beds, and other medical supplies and treatments. Currently, there is no single national response to provide guidance on allocation of scarce health care resources. Accordingly, states have formulated various “triage protocols” to prioritize those who will receive care and those who may not have the same access to health care services when the population demand exceeds the supply. Triage protocols address general concepts of “fairness” under accepted medical ethics rules and the consensus is that limited medical resources “should be allocated to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”1 The actual utility of this utilitarian ethics approach is questionable, however, leaving many questions about what is “fair” unanswered. Saving as many people as possible during a health care crisis is a laudable goal but not at the expense of ignoring patients’s legal rights, which are not suspended during the crisis. This Article examines the triage protocols from six states to determine whose rights are being recognized and whose rights are being denied, answering the pivotal question: If there is potential for disparate impact of facially neutral state triage protocols against Black Americans and other ethnic groups, is this legally actionable discrimination? This may be a case of first impression for the courts to resolve.
“[B]lack Americans are 3.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than [W]hite Americans … . Latinx people are almost twice as likely to die of the disease, compared with [W]hite people.”
“Our civil rights laws protect the equal dignity of every human life from ruthless utilitarianism … . HHS is committed to leaving no one behind during an emergency, and this guidance is designed to help health care providers meet that goal.” — Roger Severino, Office of Civil Rights Director, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.