America turned a major corner in the fight against COVID-19 on April 27 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and President Biden announced more lenient mask usage requirements for people who are vaccinated and gathering in small groups outdoors. While that’s good news for many, one year into the pandemic, the announcement also shines an ever-growing spotlight on the national disparity among Black and Latinx individuals who want the COVID-19 vaccine but are unable to access it.
Nina Feldman of NPR has reported that just 23% of vaccines were administered to Black residents in Philadelphia even though the city’s population is more than 40% Black. Similarly, vaccination rates for Latinx men and women in the city are also significantly lower, occurring at half the rate at which white city residents are getting vaccinated.
According to Feldman, “these vaccine inequities are [also] reflected across the country, where Black and Latino people consistently receive a smaller share of vaccine doses than they represent in overall population, COVID-19 cases and deaths.”
“Black people [in Florida] represent 16% of residents but only 8% of those vaccinated,” Feldman reported. “In Illinois, 17% of people who died from COVID-19 were Black, but only 9% of those vaccinated are [Black]. In Arizona, 14% of vaccinations have gone to Hispanic people, while they account for more than twice that share of COVID-19 deaths and state population.”
More troubling, many health care workers in these states have said the disparity in vaccinations isn’t purely on vaccine hesitancy from Black or Latinx people. Instead, Feldman said the problem appears to be physical barriers that are making it harder for certain groups to get vaccinated, including “the location of vaccination sites, online-only sign-ups, appointment scheduling, transportation and other planning and access issues.”
According to Feldman, the location of a mass-vaccination site is key to addressing the disparities and closing the gap of unvaccinated demographics. “Philadelphia’s FEMA clinic borders the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. Before it opened, Asians were being vaccinated at the same slow rate as Black and Latino residents,” Feldman reported. “In the weeks after the FEMA clinic opened, the rate skyrocketed, and Asians now have the highest vaccination rate of all demographic groups in the city.”
To address the issue, Philadelphia has been regularly increasing its number of vaccination sites in communities with the overall lowest vaccination rates. New Jersey has opened vaccine appointments by phone for people without internet access. And other cities like Chicago and New York City are trying to establish even more vaccination centers near areas accessible by public transportation.
But even these types of efforts may not be enough to improve access to the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine for many people of color.
“We know that Black residents are disproportionate among essential workers,” Sharrelle Barber, a social epidemiologist at Drexel University, said in an interview with NPR. “Their flexibility to just not show up to work and get vaccinated is just limited.”
Another latent issue is the legal status of a person trying to get vaccinated; according to Feldman, “Latino community leaders cautioned that immigrants may feel uncomfortable going to a clinic where National Guard members in military fatigues greeted them out front.”
As a result, in February and March, even after the FEMA site in Philadelphia opened and the pace of vaccine distribution picked up, the racial gap of vaccinated individuals widened.
According to Barber, these kinds of issues ultimately place further blame on individuals of color, instead of broadening the conversation and improving the planning for action and equity. In other words, she said the trend of fewer people getting the shot perpetuates the fallacy that “If Black individuals aren’t gonna want to take it, we don’t have to actually allocate resources to actually improve access.”