Penny Cracas, right, with the Chester County, Pa., Health Department, administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Dando, a school district nurse, at the Chester County Government Services Center, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, in West Chester, Pa.
Who’s getting the COVID-19 vaccine, who isn’t, and why?
National polling shows that vaccine hesitancy across communities has dropped dramatically over the past three months.
By Hannah Chinn, Kenny Cooper/WHYY
(Philadelphia) — Belinda Perkins knows the issue of COVID-19 vaccine distribution isn’t black and white. But sometimes, it sure seems like it.
Perkins, who lives in Philadelphia, said she’s heard of a lot of white people getting the vaccine — but most of the eligible Black people she knows haven’t gotten their shots. She said she had to call and email for hours to get her mother, who lives in Montgomery County, an appointment. Many of her mother’s friends still haven’t gotten a vaccine appointment, although they’ve been waiting for months.
“I’m not seeing a lot of my friends getting vaccinated,” Perkins added. “And they all want to be vaccinated.”
City and state officials have promised to improve equity in vaccine distribution. WHYY’s Health Desk Help Desk looked into the data on who’s getting vaccinated, who isn’t, and why that might be.
Is there actually racial disparity in who’s getting the vaccine?
Perkins’ story is anecdotal, but the numbers back her up: There is a racial gap in terms of vaccine distribution. Data published as recently as last Wednesday shows that white people in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey, as in the rest of the country, have been getting the vaccine at much higher rates than people of color in proportion to their percentage of the population.
All the specific reasons the disparity exists are not known, but medical experts and community leaders say it’s mostly an issue of access.
No matter where you live, sign-up is often online-only, which creates technological barriers. A lot of clinics aren’t located in Black or Latino neighborhoods, which creates geographical ones. When it comes to immigrant communities, there are also issues of language and information gaps.
Sarun Chan, director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, said these problems started at the beginning of the pandemic — even before the vaccine.
“One of the first things that went out the window [for the city] was diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially by way of access to information and resources surrounding the pandemic, surrounding vaccines, surrounding everything you could think of,” Chan told WHYY News.
Vaccine information and priority group guidance was provided in English, and occasionally in Spanish or American Sign Language. That meant many immigrant leaders in Philadelphia had to provide translation on their own to inform their communities. On top of that, the guidance was constantly being updated or changed.
“By the time we were able to have access to that information and also spend the time to translate or interpret anything, [it] was no longer news,” Chan said.
What about vaccine hesitancy — the idea that people of color don’t trust the shot or are suspicious of it? Could the gap be because of that?
Given that, in addition to the barriers to access mentioned earlier, it seems vaccination rates in communities of color are lower because people can’t get the shot — not because they don’t want it.
Loren T. Bussey, a 51-year-old Black veteran in New Castle, became eligible for the vaccine at Delaware’s pharmacies last Wednesday. Though he’s still waiting for an appointment, he told WHYY he’s noticed a disparity in vaccine access across the board.
“I know a lot of Black people and Hispanic people that are not getting [the vaccine] because it’s not made accessible,” Bussey said. “When people don’t have the ability, the finance, or the transportation to go to these different places, they say they’re reluctant. But that’s not the case — they just don’t have the wherewithal to get it.”
“We decided we would start with people who would be trusted in the community, [so] we reached out to the pastors in West Philadelphia … and then we had physicians of color set up sessions where they could address questions … and we started to reach out in other ways, allowing for sign-up lists and, you know, direct contact through SMS, texting, and phone.”
Penn Medicine isn’t currently planning to take on additional contracts in new neighborhoods. But Brennan said hospitals seeking to emulate the model would do well to connect with trusted community organizations in their area.
For residents who might want vaccine clinics organized in their neighborhoods, “what’s helpful to us, if someone approaches us, is that they have a good sense of the community that they want to vaccinate and that they have a site,” Brennan said.