AARP Op-ed: This Juneteenth, let’s talk about Black health disparities
This Jan. 25, 2021, photo provided by Thomas A. LaVeist, shows him getting his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at Tulane University School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine in New Orleans. A racial gap has opened up in the nation's COVID-19 vaccination drive, with Black Americans in many places lagging behind whites in receiving shots, an Associated Press analysis shows. LaVeist, dean of the school, is recruiting notable Black Americans to help promote vaccination. (Courtesy of Thomas A. LaVeist via AP)

A racial gap has opened up in the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination drive, with Black Americans in many places lagging behind whites in receiving shots, an Associated Press analysis shows.

An early look at the 17 states and two cities that have released racial breakdowns through Jan. 25 found that Black people in all places are getting inoculated at levels below their share of the general population, in some cases significantly below.

That is true even though they constitute an oversize percentage of the nation’s health care workers, who were put at the front of the line for shots when the campaign began in mid-December.

For example, in North Carolina, Black people make up 22% of the population and 26% of the health care workforce but only 11% of the vaccine recipients so far. White people, a category in which the state includes both Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites, are 68% of the population and 82% of those vaccinated.

The gap is deeply troubling to some, given that the coronavirus has taken a disproportionate toll in severe sickness and death on Black people in the U.S., where the scourge has killed over 430,000 Americans. Black, Hispanic and Native American people are dying from COVID-19 at almost three times the rate of white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re going to see a widening and exacerbation of the racial health inequities that were here before the pandemic and worsened during the pandemic if our communities cannot access the vaccine,” said Dr. Uché Blackstock, a New York emergency physician and CEO of Advancing Health Equity, an advocacy group that addresses bias and inequality.

Experts say several factors could be driving the emerging disparity, including deep distrust of the medical establishment among Black Americans because of a history of discriminatory treatment; inadequate access to the vaccine in Black neighborhoods; and a digital divide that can make it difficult to get crucial information. Vaccination sign-ups are being done to a large degree online.

“It’s frustrating and challenging,” said Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who runs Tennessee’s vaccination program, which is doubling the doses sent to some hard-hit rural counties but is meeting with deep-rooted mistrust among some Black Tennesseans.

“We have to be working very hard to rebuild that trust and get these folks vaccinated,” Fiscus said. “They’re dying. They’re being hospitalized.”

President Joe Biden is trying to bring more equity to the vaccine rollout he inherited from the Trump administration. The Biden administration is encouraging states to map and target vulnerable neighborhoods using such tools as the CDC’s social vulnerability index, which incorporates data on race, poverty, crowded housing and other factors.

“We are going to take extra steps to get to the people hardest to reach, and that work is happening right now,” said Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the chair of Biden’s COVID-19 equity task force.

Most states have yet to release any racial data on who has been vaccinated. Even in the states that provided breakdowns, the data is often incomplete, with many records missing details on race. However, the missing information would not be enough to change the general picture in most cases.

The data came from Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia, plus two cities, Philadelphia and Chicago.

The AP analysis found that whites are getting vaccinated at closer to or higher than expected levels in most of the states examined.

At the outset, health care workers and nursing home residents generally were given priority for shots in the U.S.

In the past couple of weeks, many states opened eligibility to a wider group of older people and more front-line workers, which could be further depressing the relative share of Black people getting vaccinated. The nation’s over-65 population is more heavily white than other age groups.