Vice President Kamala Harris said she remains focused on an equitable response to the COVID-19 crisis and hopeful for bipartisan support for the $1.9 trillion package proposed by President Joe Biden to address the public health and economic challenges of the pandemic. Now is the time to act “with compassion and humanity,” she said.

In her first national interview as vice president, Harris spoke Thursday with a sense of urgency about the need to pass the American Rescue Plan, saying she has been encouraged by outreach from Republican lawmakers to discuss the package.

“We’re reaching out to everyone because we want to believe that real leaders in this moment of crisis will have the capacity to see the need, work together and put aside ideological and partisan gamesmanship,” Harris said. “That’s what we’re counting on. We’re going to push ahead, but we are working in good faith with an assumption and a belief that others will, too.”

Harris stressed that equality and equity are not the same and said the administration’s priorities in the pandemic response — including getting children back in school, vaccinating Americans, rescuing small businesses and creating jobs and addressing hunger — must “take into account certain disparities.”

“I feel very strongly about it, the president feels very strongly about it,” Harris said, adding that she and Biden are “very aligned about our priorities.”

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Black and Brown people — and particularly women, who are more likely to be essential workers — have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Data also indicates that they are being vaccinated at lower rates than White people. About two-thirds of Black women and Latinas recently reported not having enough information about where to get a vaccine, according to a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“We need to speak truth about the disparities, we need to speak truth about the racial bias in the system,” Harris said. “They’re long overdue to be fixed.”

As the lone Black woman in the Senate, Harris proposed legislation last year aimed at addressing systemic inequality exacerbated by the pandemic. This week, the administration announced members of its COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force — a body initially proposed by Harris.

“It has become one of the areas of focus and a priority area for us as an administration,” Harris said. “Call it what it is, call it by its name and then let’s address it.”

Harris took the vaccine publicly in recent weeks, in an effort to instill confidence in the American people generally, but also to overcome historical skepticism within the Black community specifically. 

As a Black woman who is now the second most powerful person in the country, Harris acknowledged that she feels “a great sense of responsibility” around the pandemic response, as Black people disproportionately dying from coronavirus and have been hit hard economically as the country has been on lockdown.

“When I took that oath on January 20, there were a whole lot of people standing on that stage with me,” she said. “You may not have seen them, but they were in my heart, they were in my mind … I feel the weight of the responsibility that comes with that. You have to use your voice in that moment … for so many who otherwise can’t be in the room in that moment. That’s how I feel about everything that we are discussing, every challenge we are facing.”

Harris declined to talk about the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, saying “the Senate is going to do its job.”

“The bottom line is that for our administration, for the president, and for me, we are going to do our piece right now, which is work on getting America back on its feet,” Harris said.

Asked about her thoughts on the prospects for the American Rescue Plan becoming law, Harris said frankly: “I don’t think we have a choice, this has to get done.”

Harris said a two-hour meeting with 10 Republican senators earlier this month left her feeling “optimistic” and that they “welcomed a real exchange of ideas, it wasn’t just window dressing, politics and name-calling” — a nod to the political theater that became a trademark of bipartisan White House legislative summits under Trump. 

“There will be a negotiation process,” Harris said. “But what’s on the line, what’s at stake … People are out of work, and they are hungry, and they can’t pay their bills. People are dying, people are sick, children are going without an education. I don’t see a choice, we have to support America’s working families, we have to support working people. We don’t have time to spare. So we’re not going to let up. We’ve got too much to do.”

Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the 2020 economic downturn, The 19th plans to tell the stories of the women who left the workforce — the mothers who were forced out or chose to leave it. Help inform our coverage.