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Early Data Shows Striking Racial Disparities In Who's Getting The COVID-19 Vaccine

Registered Nurse Shyun Lin, left, administers Alda Maxis, 70, the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in the William Reid Apartments in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Jan. 23.
Mary Altaffer
Registered Nurse Shyun Lin, left, administers Alda Maxis, 70, the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in the William Reid Apartments in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Jan. 23.

Slightly more than 6% of American adults have received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine — but a disproportionately small number of them are Black and Hispanic people.

"What we're seeing from the states that are currently reporting data on vaccination distribution by race and ethnicity is a consistent pattern that is really showing a mismatch between who's receiving the vaccine and who has been hardest hit by the pandemic," says Samantha Artiga, the director of the Racial Equity and Health Policy Program at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The group has been tracking data from the 17 states that are publicly reporting vaccination patterns by race and ethnicity, and significant disparities are emerging.

In Mississippi, 15% of vaccinations have been received by Black people, while they account for 38% of coronavirus cases and 42% of deaths in the state. In Texas, Hispanic people make up 15% of those who have been vaccinated, compared to 44% of cases and nearly half of the deaths.

Artiga notes that the data so far is both early and limited: for instance, only a small number of states are reporting race and ethnicity data right now, and the vaccine currently is available only to high-priority groups.

Nonetheless, the current patterns are "early warning flags about potential racial disparities in access to and uptake of the vaccine," according to the Kaiser Family Foundation report.

Vaccine appointments often require things like Internet access, reliable transportation and flexible work schedules. That troubles Artiga.

"How many people may be left behind if those are the resources that are required to access the vaccine?" she says.

In an interview with All Things Considered, Artiga discusses what can be done to help improve access to the vaccine. Here are excerpts.

In Washington, D.C., the health department has been narrowing vaccines sign-ups by zip code, to try to target less affluent, less white neighborhoods. Have you heard of similar efforts around the country?

We are increasingly hearing that areas are adding new vaccination sites and adopting new sign-up processes to help make the vaccine more available for people. So as you noted, D.C. is prioritizing certain wards for appointments based on some of the early data that were showing disparities and who was able to access the vaccine.

I believe there are some health systems and areas that are planning to provide appointments, based on lottery systems when vaccines become available. I'm hearing now of some mobile vaccine clinics that are going into operation to go directly into communities. And there are other areas that are also beginning to adopt this approach of targeting specific geographic areas that we know have been hardest hit by the pandemic and may have more limited resources to be able to navigate sign-up processes for vaccines.

I'm thinking about the challenge of setting up a national vaccination campaign that has to administer hundreds of millions of doses, and layering on top of that a need to make it accessible to people who might not have a vehicle, who might not have easy access to the Internet. How important is it to front load those accessibility issues if you're going to make this campaign work?

I really think the early data, and what we know about people's willingness and concerns related to the vaccine, point to the importance of having a multipronged approach that is seeking to address access barriers and provide information and education to help address people's questions and concerns.

And I think that we also can learn a lot by listening directly to communities about how and where they want to access the vaccine, where they will feel comfortable accessing the vaccine, and who they want information from about the safety of the vaccine.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 29, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this Web story mistakenly said that 15% of Black people in Mississippi and 15% of Hispanic people in Texas have been vaccinated. In fact, 15% of those who have been vaccinated in Mississippi are Black, while 15% of those vaccinated in Texas are Hispanic.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.