Racial inequality shaped the pandemic — and now it's shaping vaccination campaigns, too

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Posted at 6:44 PM, Jan 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-08 19:20:19-05

CINCINNATI — Racial disparities in income and health care have shaped the COVID-19 pandemic since it began in 2020, leaving deep impressions in the data gathered by scientists in the intervening year.

Black and brown Americans are three times more likely to die or become seriously ill with the virus than white; less likely to have access to accurate, consistent health care or information; and heavily represented in the ranks of “essential” workers whose jobs cannot be performed remotely.

And now, as vaccination campaigns roll across the country, they’re also less likely to be at the top of the priority list for a shot.

“Seventeen states that have reported racial data, all 17 show that African-Americans are getting the vaccinations less than whites,” said Dr. O’dell Owens, a former MD and current CEO of the health-focused nonprofit Interact for Health.

Around 50,000 people in Hamilton County had received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Thursday. Roughly 5,000 of them — 10% — were Black, which is higher than the statewide average reported by Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News reported Jan. 17 that although about 13% of Ohioans are Black, Black Ohioans made up only 6% of all people who had received the vaccine.

None of it is enough, Owens said Thursday, especially considering that the Black community experiences generally higher rates of health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma and kidney disease — conditions that can contribute to a negative outcome four COVID-19 patients.

So, why the imbalance? One of the biggest factors is simply who’s been included in the earliest stages of Ohio’s vaccination plan, which prioritized health care workers at the very beginning.

Only about 4% of all physicians in the United States are Black, according to Renee Mahaffey Harris, who runs the racial equity-oriented health nonprofit Center for Closing the Health Gap.

“Locally, it’s somewhere between 2.6-3%,” she added.

The latest phase of the vaccine rollout, nicknamed “Phase 1B,” includes a broader swathe of the general population: seniors, K-12 teachers and people who have certain serious, congenital health conditions that could endanger them if they catch COVID-19.

Data collected during this phase could show more equity, and Mahaffey Harris said she’s working hard to ensure that Black Cincinnatians have access to reliable, understandable information about the vaccine and how to get it.

“(We want) to help people understand how they sign up, where they can move to actually get the vaccine, questions about things you're hearing on social media about what the vaccine is and isn’t,” she said.

But Cincinnati’s Black community still faces the same problem as every other: There isn’t enough to go around. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has said he does not expect the state’s vaccine supply to improve until another vaccine candidate joins the market.

"What's the solution? More vaccines,” Owens said. “Give me vaccine, I can take care of that. Give me the vaccine, we can line African Americans up."