- Urge your elected officials to improve your state’s COVID-19 race and ethnicity data reporting by using the resources on The COVID Tracking Project.
- Search for petitions and other action items to ensure an equitable rollout of the vaccine in your state. Here are examples of actions to take in North Carolina and Georgia.
- Contact your local mutual aid network to see how you can support those eligible for vaccinations in your community. You may be able to offer transportation or schedule appointments on behalf of others.
- Individuals across the country are designing their own websites, Google Docs, and social media accounts to make vaccine testing information more accessible (MIT Technology). Find the latest for your community and share/support where needed.
Over the past few weeks, valiant efforts to increase vaccination rates have been lauded by the press. Tuesday, White House officials announced a program to ship doses of the vaccine directly to a network of federally funded clinics in underserved areas (NYTimes). Pfizer expects to cut COVID-19 vaccine production time by close to 50%, promising more accessibility (USA Today).
But so far, the federal government has gathered race and ethnicity data for just 52% of all vaccine recipients. Among those, just 11% were given to recipients identified as Latino/Latina, and 5% were given to those identified as Black Americans (Politico). Although public health experts believe delivering vaccines directly to underserved communities is helpful, they note that the absence of comprehensive data makes it impossible to know whether vaccine distribution is truly equitable (NYTimes).
The lack of data on COVID-19 contraction and treatment’s racial disparities has been a persistent issue since the pandemic began in the U.S. last March. A study from the John Hopkins’ Coronavirus Research Center published last June noted that racial and ethnic information was available for only about 35% of the total deaths in the U.S. during that time. Various advocacy organizations, including the Black Lives Matter movement, demanded accountability. While data have improved over time, they continue to have significant gaps and limitations, particularly on a state-by-state level (KFF). These discrepancies have made it difficult to understand its effects across communities and respond appropriately.
And now that we’re rigorously attempting to distribute the vaccine, the same challenges apply. In the NYTimes, Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, notes that the lack of data is alarming.
The race and ethnicity data is important because we know who’s bearing the brunt of the pandemic, so there is a fairness and an empathy issue. But there is also a disease control issue. If those are the groups most likely to get affected and die, those are the groups we need to make sure we are reaching with the vaccine.
Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, NYTimes
Even with limited data, the differences are apparent. NPR studied the locations of vaccination sites in major cities across the Southern U.S. and found that most are based in whiter neighborhoods (NPR). This data mirrors the organization’s previous reporting last May, which analyzed COVID-19 testing facilities (NPR). This continued disparity has immediate and urgent implications. Residents express their frustration with finding transportation to facilities for an available vaccine. But it also indicates a broader issue. Most vaccine distribution and tests are hosted in existing healthcare facilities, and those, too, are inequitably distributed. It’s a reminder that COVID-19 doesn’t just cause these disparities but exacerbates them.
And the South isn’t a unique case. Similar studies in other major cities show that vaccine accessibility prioritizes whiter neighborhoods (NPR). As Grist notes while analyzing Chicago data, these disparities often mean that more polluted communities are left behind (Grist). Communities with higher rates of pollution tend to have compounding health issues that can worsen the impact of COVID-19.
But it will take more than presidential intervention and speedier production timelines to get those most vulnerable vaccinated. A significant barrier to ensuring vaccines are utilized is trust. The Black community – and other communities of color – have a deep distrust of the medical system, an issue we’ve written about frequently in previous newsletters. Organizations have rallied quickly to create cross-cultural awareness campaigns, but it’s likely insufficient for solving generational trauma alone (Ad Council).
As individuals, we have little control over the systemic and political forces in play that makes vaccine distribution inequitable. But we can do our part to ease access for those in our communities. As the rollout continues, consider how you can also advocate for changes that transform our healthcare system, making it more responsive in times of future emergencies.
- The vaccine rollout seems to favor white communities, with few people of color receiving the vaccine so far.
- Data on the vaccine rollout is limited due to constraints and disparities in state-by-state reporting.
- The lack of racial/ethnic data in the response to COVID-19 is a persistent issue that’s affecting access to testing and treatment.
- Part of the issues in lack of accessibility stems from broader systemic disparities evident in healthcare.