Latinos surpass non-Latinos in COVID-19 vaccination in Pa., but devil’s in the details

With more than half the state's Latino population jabbed, the numbers mark a milestone but also come with caveats.

  • Anthony Orozco

(Harrisburg) — Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts and community leaders have warned about the racial and economic disparities amplified by the coronavirus.

But efforts to reach minority communities in Pennsylvania, particularly Latinos, have shown some efficacy. In recent days, state data on vaccination rates show little more than half — 51.2 percent — of Latinos outside of Philadelphia have gotten at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Latinos lead by a thin margin when compared to all non-Latinos, 47.9 percent of which have gotten a shot. Some 44 percent of Latinos are fully covered, edging out their non-Latino counterparts, who are at 43.9 percent.

The data is segregated from Philadelphia’s, which has its own health department.The city reports nearly three-fourths of its Latinos have been vaccinated.

Reaching 50 percent of Latinos was made possible by intentional directed community efforts, according to Dr. Diego Chaves-Gnecco.

“We take people on a walk-in basis. We’re vaccinating adults without health insurance, without appointments, and in their same language, in Spanish,” said Chaves-Gnecco, a Pittsburgh area pediatrician.  “We also are not requiring any type of documentation.”

Chaves-Gnecco, an associate pediatrics professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, has helped in University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s vaccination efforts, while teaming up with Latino nonprofit Casa San Jose and the Allegheny County Health Department. Many other vaccination pushes around the state have similarly removed barriers to make the COVID-19 shots  more accessible in recent months.

He said having culturally and linguistically competent volunteers and staff at events has helped make Latinos more comfortable, especially those who may have concerns about costs or their immigration status.

When vaccines became more widely available, health networks, nonprofits, state and county health departments conducted outreach efforts in Latino and immigrant communities.

The state has been utilizing the CATE mobile testing and vaccination unit in cities across the commonwealth. The mobile unit has also given out shots in industries where Latinos make up a substantial part of the workforce, such as in agriculture.

Anthony Orozco / WITF

Workers at Giorgio Mushrooms in Berks County line up for their second doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine this week. The state is pushing to vaccinate more farmworkers, many of them Latino immigrants.

“In fact, we are working with minority news organizations throughout the state to offer interviews and insight to help message vaccination information to these targeted populations,” said  Maggie Barton, a state Department of Health spokesperson. “Throughout these efforts, we recognize it is critical for us to meet people where they are and trusted messengers such as local leaders will be critical to shifting attitudes.”

The community leaders and organizations have shared their own experiences with the vaccine on social media to normalize inoculation.

Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration invested a $3.8 million Center for Disease Control and Prevention grant, to focus on marginalized communities, using bilingual television and radio announcements.

Many of the initiatives were spurred by far-reaching health and social disparities that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coronavirus hospitalizations of Black and Latino people are nearly three times more likely than White people. Black and Latinos are two times more likely to die from the disease.

Kate Landis / WITF

A mobile unit designed for COVID-19 testing and education is on view at a press event in Harrisburg, Pa., on Aug. 25, 2020. The Department of Health is calling it the Community-Accessible Testing and Education mobile unit, or CATE.

Latinos have long trailed other groups in vaccination rate and are still a considerable distance behind the statewide rate of 62.1 percent of eligible people having gotten at least one shot.

White people still lead, with 52 percent having at least one shot of the vaccine. Black people come in second with 41.4 percent having at least one dose. Thirty percent of Asians have gotten a shot and less than 20 percent of Native Americans have taken the jab.

As an ethnicity, anyone of any race can identify as Latino. For example, people whose ancestry is mostly indigenous may choose Native American as their race. If that person or their family hails from a Latin American country, they may also identify as Latino.

Kaiser Family Foundation tracks states’ vaccination rates across the country and for several months, the rate of distribution of vaccines to Latinos in the commonwealth did not match the population.

In recent weeks, the gap has narrowed, with seven percent of the vaccines having been given out to Latinos, which make up eight percent of the population, according to the 2020 U.S. census.

Samantha Artiga is Kaiser’s vice president and director of Racial Equity and Health Policy. She said there have been promising developments in getting vaccines to Latinos.

Olivet Boys and Girls Club vaccination

Anthony Orozco / WITF

Hundreds of people receive their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine at a weekend vaccination event held at an Olivet Boys’ and Girls’ Club location in Reading.

“We’ve seen some recent trends suggesting  that an increase in share has been going up. Vaccines have been going to Hispanic people, which is starting to help narrow these gaps that we’ve seen over time,” Artiga said. “So for example, over a quarter of vaccines administered in the past 14 days have gone to Hispanic people, which is higher than their share of the total population (17 percent of national population).”

KFF’s vaccination rate for Latinos in the state, 37 percent, varies greatly from the commonwealth’s  because it uses the estimate for entire communities, rather than age ranges eligible for the shot.

The state’s calculations are also based on the census’s 2019 American Community Survey population estimates for people eligible for the vaccine, which is currently ages 12 and up. Due to how census estimate data is broken up, the commonwealth is looking at populations ages 10 and up.

But another caveat for the milestone vaccination rate among Latinos is the denominators for these percentages are based off of 2019 estimates. Neither the state nor Kaiser have not integrated the 2020 census figures, which showed a growth in the Latino population.

The foundation said it has not used the 2020 American Community Survey one-year estimates because those figures have not been released yet and the reliability of that information may be compromised due to the pandemic.

The Department of Health said it needs the additional detailed census results in order to use updated figures as denominators for population statistics. It is estimated the figures won’t be released until February 2022.

For all the stipulations that accompany numbers that half the state’s Latinos are vaccinated, Chaves-Gnecco said it is motivating.

“I’m excited to know that we are on the right path, and actually, that makes me happy and makes me think that our efforts are paying off,” Chaves-Gnecco said. “On the other hand, the world is not putting the work in or complete.”

“We want everybody to get vaccinated,” he added.


Anthony Orozco is part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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