Georgia officials grapple with vaccine skepticism, equity concerns

Top Georgia officials vowed Wednesday to more equitably distribute life-saving vaccines for a pandemic that has disproportionately affected communities of color, though the push for more balance is bogged down by limited supply and little data.

During a visit to the Morehouse School of Medicine near downtown Atlanta, Gov. Brian Kemp pledged the state will be a “willing partner” to team with trusted organizations, including charities, local officials and churches, to ensure vulnerable populations have more access to the vaccine.

But the state still doesn’t have a timetable for gathering detailed race and ethnicity data on vaccine recipients, hobbling the efforts to balance inequities that Kemp and public health officials acknowledge continue to mount.

“Everybody could do more if we had more supply,” Kemp said during the roundtable with health officials. “But one thing we do know is we still see a disparity with minority and underserved populations.”

The governor said there was no schedule yet to update the state’s database with more accurate information on the race and ethnicity of those who have received the vaccine. While he said he’s confident the gap will be filled, he didn’t specify how.

The hurdles to getting a clear picture of the vaccination disparities echo the struggles state officials faced early in the pandemic to understand racial disparities in COVID-19 cases.

It turned out that Georgia forgot to put the question of race among the demographic data on its online test registration form for drive-up testing sites. The omission was fixed after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brought it to the state’s attention.

Across the nation, while the pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, only about half of all states have vaccination breakdowns by race.

A recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the race or ethnicity has been reported in only about 52% of those vaccinated.

The data that is available shows 60% of those who got the shots were white, while Hispanics, Asians and Blacks comprised 11.5%, 6% and 5.4%, respectively. About 14% were categorized as multiple or other race, the report said.

Better outreach needed

Reasons for the racial disparity in vaccinations are complex.

Javier Díaz de León, Mexico’s consul general in Atlanta, said one problem is few counties have bilingual information about vaccination services.

“It happened in the testing part, and it’s also happening in the registration process for vaccinations,” he said.

He’s working with organizations like the Latino Community Fund and Emory University on vaccine outreach efforts in Hispanic communities.

Access is another hurdle, particularly for those who don’t have transportation to a vaccination site.

To expand access, the Biden administration announced Tuesday it will begin shipping doses of the COVID-19 vaccine directly to qualified community health centers, which are often in underserved communities.

The community health initiative is part of a broader push by the Biden administration to contain the virus. Federal health officials also recently announced they would send doses to hundreds of pharmacies in “socially vulnerable areas.”

Kemp at Wednesday’s discussion acknowledged the transportation barrier, saying that the state needs to reach every Georgian, no matter where they are.

“Whether they can drive to a site, whether they can get on public transportation to get to the site, whether they have no ability to get to the site, we have to figure out a way to get to those individuals,” he said.

In Fulton County, officials on Wednesday announced plans to get the vaccine to more elderly residents in communities of color.

The effort includes calling senior citizens who may be unable to make an appointment or hesitant about being vaccinated, visiting senior living facilities to conduct on-site vaccinations and moving a vaccination site near the county airport to the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park, in response to complaints that there isn’t a location in south Fulton closer to many of its Black residents.

Valerie Lewis, 70, who participated in Fulton County’s pilot vaccination program, brought a member of her senior group, “Glamorous Grandmas,” to get a vaccine shot Wednesday.

Fulton County resident Valerie Lewis, 70, dressed in red, received a COVID-19 vaccine shot and at a Wednesday news conference encouraged other African Americans to get the shots. She is taking part in an initiative by county officials to get more people in underserved communities vaccinated. ERIC STIRGUS/ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM.

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“I want people of color to talk to one another,” Lewis told reporters. “I want them to understand this is serious and we need to be vaccinated as a group. It’s affecting us disproportionately.”

‘Historic mistrust’

Over the course of the hourlong discussion at Morehouse School of Medicine, Kemp was peppered with stories about other challenges that health and government officials face in getting vaccines to predominantly Black and Hispanic communities.

Historic distrust looms large. Some invoke the government-backed Tuskegee study, in which scientists withheld treatment for decades from Black men who had syphilis and didn’t know it in order to see how the disease would progress.

Dr. Kelley Carroll, chief of ambulatory medicine at Grady Hospital, also nodded to the “historic mistrust” in minority communities and said the healthcare system is trying to connect with some of the highest-risk patients by setting up special hotlines and exploring other options.

Morehouse School of Medicine on Jan. 5 administers the first of two Moderna Covid-19 vaccines to civil rights leaders including Ambassador Andrew Young and sets up reminders for the second dose.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, president and dean of Morehouse School of Medicine, said photos and videos of trusted medical professionals and community leaders receiving the vaccine can play an outsized role in fighting myths and misguided conspiracy theories.

“Yes, there is that same hesitancy,” Rice said. “But we are not going to let our mistrust of the past with the health system be the blueprint of our future.”