Black Americans’ COVID vaccine rates are half compared with whites: NYT analysis

The nation’s COVID-19 vaccination rate topped 2 million people a day earlier this week. But a New York Times analysis published Friday found the vaccination rate for Black Americans is half that of white people, with the gap for Hispanics even larger.

As of March 3, the Times analysis said, 38 states were publicly sharing race and ethnicity data for vaccinated people with different levels of completeness.

The Times gathered race and Hispanic origin data for vaccinated people from state websites between March 1-3. Some states do not report the race and ethnicity of vaccinated people, but rather of all doses given, which can double count people who have received two doses of the vaccine. Those states were excluded from the analysis.

»Read the complete analysis here

The Times also removed from its analysis vaccinations with unknown or unreported race or ethnicity. Some states are also reporting larger-than-expected shares of the race category “other,” and states are still working to determine the reasons for this.

The Times used population data from the 2019 American Community Survey. While some states include Hispanic people among racial categories, others report ethnicity separately. Total population figures were adjusted based on the method of race and ethnicity reporting in each state.

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In Georgia, state data show Blacks make up about 19% of the Peach State’s vaccine recipients, although they are about 33% of Georgia’s population. The race of recipients was unknown, though, for more than 8% of vaccine recipients.

Georgia Department of Public Health officials said they are updating the provider reporting system to make race and ethnicity a requirement on the forms to more accurately track such data. The changes should be fully implemented soon, they said.

The average number of vaccine doses being administered across the United States per day topped 2 million for the first time Wednesday, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A month ago, the average was about 1.3 million.

President Joe Biden set a goal for the country shortly after taking office to administer more than 1.5 million doses a day, which the nation has now comfortably exceeded.

Biden has also promised to administer 100 million vaccines by his 100th day in office, which is April 30. As of Thursday, 54 million people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine was authorized for emergency use last weekend, but those doses do not appear yet in the CDC data.

But the Biden White House is struggling to address a patchwork approach in states to both administering vaccines and reporting data on who is inoculated, which has left the federal government with significant blind spots and only partial control over who gets a shot. Incomplete data from states show that relatively lower proportions of Black and Latino populations have received injections, compared with white people.

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In Philadelphia and Washington, Black people make up more than 40% of the population but just over 20% of vaccinated people for whom racial data is available, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker. In Texas and California, Latinos make up 39% of the population but just 21% and 18% of those vaccinated, respectively. In Arizona, white people make up 55% of the population but have received 76% of vaccines.

Biden and his top advisers, led by Vice President Kamala Harris, have pressed for vaccinations to be equitable in a pandemic that has disproportionately ravaged communities of color. An equity task force, which sprung from a bill Harris once proposed, held its first meeting at the end of February, where officials stressed the need for better data.

“It is critically important to have equity in vaccine distribution because of everything we know about how disproportionate the impact of COVID-19 has been on communities of color,” said Lisa Cooper, a physician who directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity. “We may not all be in the same boat, but we’re in the same storm — if other boats are capsizing, it’s not good for the rest of us.”

People of color — including American Indians, Alaska Native persons, Black people and Latinos — are roughly three to four times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than white people and roughly twice as likely to die of the disease, according to data from the Atlanta-based CDC.

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The reasons are broad and complicated, including higher rates of preexisting conditions that worsen the virus’ impact, less access to health care, and a higher share of people who live in multigenerational households or work front-line jobs.

“The crisis of COVID-19 and inequity go hand-in-hand,” Marcella Nunez-Smith, a physician and professor at the Yale School of Medicine who leads the task force, said at last week’s meeting. Equitable vaccinations are crucial “not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but there is frankly just no credible path at all forward to our new normal without it.”

The frustration over vaccine inequities within the administration is sufficient that Jeff Zients, Biden’s COVID-19 response coordinator, has suggested some states could be punished if it doesn’t improve.

“We’ll monitor channels, make sure channels are performing in two ways: efficiency and also fairness and equity,” Zients said this week in a news briefing. “Future allocations across channels could be changed based on performance.”

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Two developments may soon give the federal government more power to reduce inequities. Under Biden, the federal government has begun distributing millions of doses of vaccines directly to pharmacies and community health centers, particularly those in underserved areas, instead of directly to states — giving the administration more control over who gets shots. The shipments and locations are set to expand with supply.

In a recent interview with Univision News, Biden urged Black and Latino people to take the vaccine and said he’s focused on more equitable distribution. Polling has shown that Americans of color are more reticent than white people to take shots.

“I can assure them it’s safe, number one, and I can assure them I’m doing everything to make it possible, to make it easier for them to get access to the vaccine,” he said.

But Nunez-Smith has warned a surge in doses could actually fuel inequity if mismanaged. “People of color aren’t getting vaccinated at equitable rates. And as eligibility opens up more, so does the need to address potential structural barriers to equitable access,” she said last week.

Most vaccine doses under Biden, about 85%, still go to states, who take their own approach to distribution. Some have performed better in targeting doses to communities of color. New Mexico, for instance, is the only state with available data where Latinos’ share of vaccinations actually exceeds their share of the population.

But the issue is complicated by another top priority: putting shots in arms as fast as possible. Biden’s administration has opened mass vaccination centers such as the one at NRG Stadium in Houston that the president visited last week. The vaccination centers quickly put shots into lots of arms, but they tend to benefit more privileged people — those who own vehicles and can afford to wait in long lines, and thus risk further inequity.

“Efficiency and equity are both central to what we’re doing, and I don’t see any tradeoff,” Zients said at a Feb. 9 briefing.

Shortfalls in available data continue to stymie the administration’s effort to balance the two priorities, said Cameron Webb, a physician who serves as a COVID-19 adviser to Biden.

“The equity piece is actually mission-critical to ending the pandemic,” he said in an interview. “If you want to stop people from dying, being hospitalized and spreading COVID, you have to go to the communities that have been hardest hit.”

The administration has paired its mass-vaccination drives with more targeted outreach to communities of color. Last week, Harris visited a pharmacy in a majority Black neighborhood of Washington to highlight the effort to deliver doses to disadvantaged people.

Even that approach isn’t without pitfalls, however, as some online appointments get snapped up by more privileged people.

“It’s important to do both,” said Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, who sits on the Biden administration’s equity task force. “Only focusing on mass vaccinations without focusing on neighborhood-based strategies is not the way to approach the vaccination process.”

According to The Associated Press, California will begin sending 40% of all vaccine doses to the most vulnerable neighborhoods in the state to inoculate people most at risk from the coronavirus and get the state’s economy open more quickly.

The doses will be spread among 400 ZIP codes where there are about 8 million people eligible for shots, said Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary. Many of the neighborhoods are in Los Angeles County and the central valley, which have had among the highest rates of infection.

The areas are considered most vulnerable based on metrics such as household income, education level and access to health care.

“It is a race against the variants,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday. “It’s a race against exhaustion. It’s a race to safely, thoughtfully open our economy, mindful that it has to be an economy that doesn’t leave people behind, that is truly inclusive.”

Tying reopening to vaccination equity metrics was cheered by representatives of the legislative Black and Latino caucuses, as well as social justice and equity groups. Latinos make up roughly half of cases and deaths in California even though they are 39% of the population.

Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, director of the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities, said the dedicated vaccine hasn’t come soon enough given the disparate numbers of deaths and the lack of access to vaccines in the hardest-hit communities.

“They are living day to day, so they have to go and work in order to survive ,and they don’t have the luxury to take half a day to go where the vaccine sites are,” he said.