We’re closing out the first week of Black History Month here in the U.S. Instead of looking back, we’re focusing on what’s happening right now in the news. A bombshell report from NPR reveals that there are few, if any, COVID-19 vaccination sites in black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the South, despite the toll the pandemic has taken on communities of color.
According to the CDC, black Americans are 1.4x and Hispanic Americans are 1.7x more likely to get infected with the coronavirus than non-Hispanic whites. Black people are 3.7x as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than their white counterparts, while Hispanics are 4.1x as likely to wind up in the ER or ICU.
So, why aren’t southern states setting up vaccination hubs in black and Hispanic neighborhoods?
Looking at the Data
Researchers have been diving into the available COVID-19 vaccination data to see how the rollout is affecting different communities. Using maps provided by individual states, they discovered that most vaccination sites in the south were located in white neighborhoods.
Researchers confirmed their findings by looking at the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
They also reached out to nine health officials in counties with the biggest discrepancies, including Travis and Bastrop counties, Texas; East Baton Rouge Parish, LA; Hinds County, MS; Mobile County, AL; Chatham County, GA; DeKalb County, GA; Fulton County, GA; and Richland County, South Carolina.
It soon became clear that many African American and Hispanic neighborhoods either lack access to the vaccine or that residents must travel further than white Americans to get their shot.
States have largely been relying on existing infrastructure when rolling out the vaccine, which means turning hospitals, doctor’s offices, pharmacies, and other existing healthcare facilities into vaccination sites.
However, that has put black and brown Americans at a disadvantage when it comes to getting their shots. Healthcare facilities tend to be more common in wealthier neighborhoods. Recent reporting shows that poorer, more racially diverse areas face a 50% greater risk in experiencing a healthcare facility closure.
It’s a problem not just for the South, but the entire country.
“This is structural and foundational to the racial disparities in our country,” says Dr. Utibe Essien, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. “We’re hopeful there will be new facilities that are stood up. But what we saw play out with COVID testing was there were new facilities that came up, but they relied on existing infrastructure.”
Commenting on the data, Inmaculada Hernandez, an assistant professor of pharmacy and therapeutics at the University of Pittsburgh, said, “We worry this is going to exacerbate disparities in outcomes even more now. The limitations of existing infrastructure in counties are very different.”
Making the Trip
Seniors who are eligible for the vaccine may have trouble traveling across town to get their shot. For many, the trip means taking public transportation and risking exposure to the virus.
Even though illegal immigrants are eligible for the vaccine, many say they are worried about getting pulled over by the police on their way to the clinic, risking possible deportation. Some members of the community recall getting pulled over for minor traffic violations, such as a broken tail light.
“They have a lot of distrust and fear of giving their information out without knowing it’s not going to be used against them,” says Edie Clark, a leader with a faith-based nonprofit in Travis and Bastrop Counties in Texas.
In Mobile County, Alabama, researchers located 18 vaccination sites, 14 of which are in predominantly white neighborhoods.
Joe Womack, a resident of the historically black neighborhood known as “Africatown” and the founder of C.H.E.S.S., a program devoted to ensuring healthy, safe black neighborhoods, says his community has been suffering from poverty, pollution, and health disparities. “It’s been a struggle ever since the ’70s,” he said.
Across the US, researchers identified 250 counties where black residents are less likely to live within 10 miles of a vaccination site than white residents.
In Mississippi, just 17% of those vaccinated so far were black, even though they make up around 37% of the population.
The Lasting Effects of Racism
The government is trying to roll out the vaccine as quickly as possible, but moving fast means relying on current infrastructure, which can exacerbate existing health disparities. To address the problem, officials need to bring the drug closer to their patients.
Tasha Clark-Amar, CEO of the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging, says, “When you go to north Baton Rouge, there are very few [health care] choices. And then how many of those are participating in the vaccine program?”
To help older people of color get their vaccines, she recently set up a series of pop-up vaccination sites in the community after securing around 1,000 doses from a local grocery store. Unfortunately, she had to cancel appointments at the last minute when the store couldn’t deliver.
“I was livid. I was so angry and frustrated,” she said. “Thirty-five of the people we had registered are between the ages of 80 and 99. Now you tell me, how am I supposed to pick?”
Clark-Amar says predominantly black communities are often forced to rely on a patchwork of resources.
Thomas LaVeist, a dean and health care equity researcher at Tulane University in New Orleans, says the trend is rooted in our country’s legacy of systemic racism.
“I do think that the South is perhaps more of a problem than some other parts of the country. Part of that is a long history of racism, Jim Crow and, in some cases, intentional actions that were taken to ensure that some communities did not have access to healthcare and other resources, while others did,” he said.