More people of color are getting vaccinated, data shows, a bright spot as COVID-19 worsens. But gaps remain, and advocates say that progress is too slow.
What’s happening: People of color make up more than half of the individuals Atrium Health vaccinated between mid-June and mid-August, the hospital system said in last month’s board meeting.
- Black residents made up about a third of those inoculated during that time, while Hispanic people made up 11%.
- In the period between December and mid-June, 17% of those Atrium vaccinated were Black, and 5% were Hispanic.
Why it matters: The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color, both health-wise and economically. But they are underrepresented among the vaccinated, compared to their share of the population overall, even with the recent rise in vaccinations.
- That puts communities at further risk as the Delta variant fuels another COVID-19 surge.
By the numbers: State data shows a similar trend. Black people made up more than a quarter of those vaccinated in the four weeks leading up to Aug. 9, and Hispanic people made up 16%.
- What they’re saying: Employer mandates, the FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and fear of the Delta variant are likely contributing to the uptick, says Kinneil Coltman, chief community and social impact officer for Atrium Health.
Zoom out: Charlotte’s two major hospital systems, Atrium and Novant Health, also say their efforts to reach underserved communities are paying off.
Novant has hosted pop-up clinics at schools and businesses in communities that are historically excluded, said Dr. Jerome Williams Jr., Novant’s senior vice president of consumer engagement.
- Novant has partnerships with faith institutions, food banks, homeless shelters, the Latin American Coalition and other grassroots groups.
- They park the clinics at supermarkets and other high-traffic areas in ethnically diverse neighborhoods.
- Atrium Health also has roving vaccine clinics and partnerships with a coalition of minority faith organizations and other community groups.
Yes, but: Even with these improvements, there are still disparities in vaccination rates.
- Black people make up 34% of Mecklenburg County’s population, but 23% of the people vaccinated with at least one dose, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Hispanic residents make up 14% of the population, but 12% of those vaccinated with at least one dose.
Context: Lack of access to healthcare is one key reason why vaccinations have lagged in people of color. Another is distrust, rooted in a long legacy of systemic racism in health care.
- There’s a history of horrific experiments being performed on Black, Indigenous and Hispanic people, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study.
- “We have to respond in really thoughtful, careful ways that acknowledge things like the Tuskegee experiments, but also acknowledge that this is really something that’s going to prevent disparities from happening in our community,” Coltman says.
Rebuilding: Rockwell AME Zion Church Pastor Jordan Boyd is the board chairman of the coalition of minority clergy members Atrium is working with. It’s called Village HeartBEAT Inc. The group emerged before COVID-19 to help address chronic diseases in the Black and Hispanic populations, but has partnered with Atrium to give out more than 10,000 vaccinations across its various houses of worship, Boyd said.
The coalition, he says, is working to repair the relationship between minority communities and health care institutions, but it relies on transparency. That’s especially critical given a history of research, trials and vaccines that have left out or taken advantage of Black participants.
- For example, in 1951, the cells of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, were given to researchers without her consent or knowledge. Her cells turned out to have an unusual ability to reproduce, and the cell line became critical in biological research.
So far, Boyd says, Atrium has been forthright in sharing data.
- “You’re talking about trying to bridge a chasm of mistrust,” he tells me.
Camino Health Center, a nonprofit that provides health care and other services to the Latino population, recently conducted a survey of 400 people in the Latino community. The biggest barrier respondents reported was the lack of trust.
- Lennin Caro, a research assistant for Camino’s research institute and co-author of the study, tells me it’s not just about providing resources in Spanish.
- He believes there needs to be more culturally competent messaging to the community. For example, he said, in the interviews they conducted, Latino patients emphasized getting the vaccine to protect their families.
The other side: The improvements in vaccination equity could be happening more quickly, if organizations embedded in the community are given financial resources, says Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP.
Mack has been helping put together educational events to provide people with accurate information about the vaccine.
But she says that Black-run organizations like the NAACP and U2U, the group she founded after the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott, are not receiving any funding for their efforts. Meanwhile, she says, white-led groups are.
- “It is not fair that Black-led organizations, who work in Black communities every single day, who have relationships with the community that we are trying to reach, who speak their language, who understand their plight, are not receiving funds to get the work done,” Mack says. “And everybody wants to act dumbfounded because the numbers are not going the right way quickly.”
The bottom line: Nearly everyone, from the hospital systems to advocates, want to see progress faster.
- Vaccinations dropped in June and July at Novant, but picked back up in August. But they are nowhere near the vaccination rates from the spring, which the health system says are necessary to close the gaps.
“I can at least say we’re going in the right direction,” Williams said. “We have to continue with evidence-based scientific data, plain and simple. We have to continue to articulate facts. And I think with that, we will continue to see, hopefully, the changing tide.”