Officials push to erase racial disparities in COVID vaccination rates

Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) had a message for constituents hesitant to get the coronavirus vaccine. 

“I was scared to death to get this shot,” she said Wednesday night during a Facebook Live event to address coronavirus vaccine concerns in the Black community. “Then I began to realize I was being stupid. It is safe. It’s been tested.”

So she rolled up sleeve last week and got her first injection of the vaccine that is as much as 95% effective in preventing coronavirus infection and disease. 

“I even had someone hold my hand,” she said. “I’ll go with any one of you and hold your hand if you need.”

Dingell was reflecting a relatively large population of Americans who eye the coronavirus leerily. That leeriness has been labeled vaccine hesitancy by public health authorities and it spans racial demographics. 

The Pew Research Center’s December 2020 study of coronavirus restrictions, vaccination and impact on communities revealed that 42% of Black Americans said they “definitely/probably” are getting the vaccine. That’s compared to 83% of Asian Americans, 63% of Latinx Americans and 61% of white Americans. 

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Michigan has more than 570,000 COVID cases and almost 15,000 deaths. Roughly 1.3 million Michiganders have been innoculated, but concerns among some residents remain, so health officials and political leaders joined Irwin’s event to encourage vaccination and answer questions

“This is the tool,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical officer and chief deputy director for health for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), of vaccines. “This is the tool to end this pandemic.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist concurred with Khaldun, noting that in order to conquer the pandemic, getting vaccinated is important — but so is having your questions answered. 

“The questions are real,” he said. “The questions are legitimate. And we have the answers.”

And those questions combined with unconscious bias in medical care and a history of experimentation and exploitation of Blacks for medical knowledge has left many in the Black community questioning everything about the vaccines — from the racial demographics of who has been inoculated already, to whether people of color were studied in the safety and efficacy trials and whether the vaccines even work. 

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In the first month of vaccine distribution, just 5.4% were given to Blacks. Whites accounted for 60% of those first rounds of vaccination, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Michigan still does not report racial demographic data related to who is being inoculated. Gilchrist said in an interview a week ago, state officials are working to expand the data collection capacity in state systems to be able to begin reporting racial demographics. 

That disparity has played into perception of second-class citizenship status, said Charles Wilson, health promotion supervisor for the Washtenaw County Health Department. 

“That’s where people are wondering if they are going to be getting the same vaccine that these first people did,” he said. “Those celebrities and others.”

The answer is yes, the same vaccine will be used in later groups approved for vaccination, although a third vaccine is heading for a possible approval. That’s a vaccine created by Johnson & Johnson. That vaccine is significantly less effective in preventing less severe disease from the infection, noted Khaldun, but it is as effective as the currently approved vaccines in preventing severe illness and death. 

“Ultimately, this is about preventing deaths, and hospitalizations,” said Gilchrist. “So any vaccine that does that is good.”

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Khaldun said that if the new vaccine is approved by regulators, Michigan will continue to receive vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, as well as the new vaccine. 

“We won’t have any less vaccines,” she said. 

Khaldun was clear that the state has been aware of, and working to address, the racial disparity of who was being hit hardest by the virus from the early days of the pandemic. Those actions have worked, according to a study released Tuesday by Duke University. 

The Michigan Coronavirus Racial Disparities Task Force has paved the way to address COVID-19 related health inequities in the state, resulting in the reduction of COVID-19 related cases and mortality among Black residents. As a result of the work, the average number of new cases for Black residents dropped from 176 per million population per day in March 2020 to 59 per million population per day in October 2020, and disparities in case rates among Hispanic or Latino Michiganders also narrowed.,” the report stated. 

Those successes were the result of what Gilchirst, Khaldun and others called “good public health.”

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“You have to go to where people are, not set up a center place for them to come to you,” said Khaldun. Michigan has pushed to create mobile testing centers that show up in specific neighborhoods. 

The state will begin rolling out vaccines the same way, working with “trusted” community entities such as churches and neighborhood groups. 

Meanwhile on Wednesday, President Joe Biden appointed Khaldun to the the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, which will will issue recommendations to help inform the COVID-19 response and recovery, including equitable allocation of COVID-19 resources and relief funds, effective outreach and communication to underserved and minority populations and improving cultural proficiency within the federal government.

Gilchirst, who continues to chair the state task force, said they will be relying on targeted communications with communities of color, particularly Black communities. 

“Black folks are more likely to wear masks and adhere to social distancing,” he said. “I like to think that is in part because of our targeted communications to them.”

The state also is trying to ensure there aren’t racial disparities in who gets the vaccine. One way DHHS is doing that is by distributing more vaccine to communities with higher Social Vulnerability Indexes. That’s a tool created by the CDC to evaluate communities based on numerous factors known to impact health outcomes — income, poverty, race, age, gender and transportation access. 

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“Frankly, that’s in part why we are moving more vaccines to FQHCs [Federally Qualified Health Centers],” said Khaldun. FQHCs are primary care facilities funded with federal grant dollars to deliver care in underserved communities. 

That also may play a deeper role in easing vaccine hesitancy, said Wilson. He noted that 72% of Blacks who responded to a survey from the county relied on their health care provider for trusted information about coronavirus. 

Khaldun asked participants to be patient as vaccine supplies continue to increase and the state increases the number of people being vaccinated each day. 

“We know that there’s not enough vaccine appointments available for everyone who wants one,” she said. 

At the end of the day, there was one cohesive message related to the vaccine. 

Gilchrist delivered it succinctly: “Get vaccinated. Straight up, get vaccinated.”