As California prepares to offer COVID-19 vaccines to a new tier of its citizens, immunization rates for Black and Hispanic residents continue to lag behind that of whites.
Despite making up 6 percent of California’s population, African Americans have received just 3 percent of the nearly 11 million vaccine doses administered in the state so far. Latinos, meanwhile, have received 17 percent of the doses given out so far though they account for 39 percent of the state’s population.
In comparison, whites, who make up 72 percent of the population, have received 32 percent of doses administered so far.
On March 3, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California would reserve 40 percent of available COVID-19 vaccines for residents living in disadvantaged areas in an effort to help rectify socioeconomic and racial disparities.
“We will never beat back this virus and reopen safely without a targeted approach for our most vulnerable communities,” Newsom said in a tweet last week.
Los Angeles County officials say the need to deliver vaccines to Black and brown neighborhoods should be viewed as a matter of life and death for communities that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic.
“We’re not doing a good enough job distributing the vaccine in an equitable way,” Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer and director of the Division of Assessment, Planning, and Quality at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, told Yahoo News. “We know that the COVID pandemic has disproportionately impacted certain communities, areas that are lowest-income, where housing is more crowded, where people are working in essential occupations where they face risk of COVID. We’ve seen much, much, much more infections and so those populations certainly need to be prioritized for the vaccination.”
Details remain scarce on exactly how the plan to vaccinate underserved populations will be carried out.
“We want to incorporate vaccination rates into the tiering,” Newsom said last week, “and that will allow people to move quickly through the tiers.”
As of Wednesday, California was still limiting vaccinations to residents 65 and older, those with ongoing serious health conditions, essential workers and the residents of long-term care facilities. Those restrictions, in addition to limited vaccine supply, have many Californians scouring the state to try to find an inoculation.
In Los Angeles, the hunt for the vaccine has sometimes led affluent white residents to wait in line at pharmacies in lower-income neighborhoods, sparking anger in the process.
“They sent these vaccines for this community, not for Beverly Hills,” South L.A. activist Veronica Sance told KTLA. “They have taken advantage of the situation. They have taken advantage of the opportunity that is here for our community and that’s what I resent.”
During the county’s March 1 COVID-19 briefing, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer highlighted the disturbing disparity in vaccination rates. Data shows that their targeted communities, which include areas like South Los Angeles, East L.A., Koreatown, Chinatown, Compton, Southeast L.A. County and the eastern San Fernando Valley have fallen well behind the rates officials had hoped to see. As of March 4, 5.4 percent of Black residents, who make up 9 percent of the county have received at least one dose of the vaccine, for instance.
“I think this vaccination rollout has demonstrated about as vividly as it could be demonstrated what the impact of privilege really is,” said Simon, who added that the disparity in vaccination rates has been “significant” and “incredibly frustrating.”
Simon also noted that systemic advantages for whites in California such as reliable internet access and transportation alternatives make it easier for them to game the vaccine rollout.
“Through word of mouth, they’re able to find opportunities to bend the rules and sneak in and get vaccinated,” Simon said.
A similar vaccine disparity has played out across the country that echoes the rates at which Black and Hispanic Americans are hospitalized and die from COVID-19 in comparison to whites.
To rectify the problem in L.A, Simon said the county is providing transportation assistance to people who may not be able to get to a vaccination site, creating pop-up clinics and making sure the county’s appointment systems and materials are in multiple languages, to eliminate that a barrier. In addition, the Los Angeles Fire Department has been deployed to reach underserved communities where they live.
In an effort to bolster confidence in the vaccines among those whose mistrust of the U.S. medical system has been built through decades of neglect and mistreatment, Los Angeles County has also contacted community organizations and churches to promote the advantages of being inoculated as well as to help with setting up appointments.
“We’re letting the community organizations know exactly when appointment slots will open up so that their clients can get an advantage, in terms of getting an appointment,” Simon said.
As Newsom has acknowledged, the effort to vaccinate Black and Hispanic communities in California will go a long way in determining how soon the pandemic will end. The governor said Wednesday that by April, the state hoped to be vaccinating 4 million people a day.
If the state can continue to reach those most at risk for COVID-19, then the prediction Newsom made during Wednesday’s state of the state address may indeed come true.
“California isn’t going to come crawling back from this pandemic. We will roar back,” he said.
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