When New York opened a COVID-19 vaccination site in January, in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood—where almost three in four residents are Latino—Gov. Andrew Cuomo hailed it as a much-needed step towards “making sure New Yorkers of color aren’t left behind.”
But less than two weeks later, white people from far-away neighborhoods have swooped in to grab most of the appointments.
“Simply put, I’ve never seen so many White people in Washington Heights,” volunteer doctor Susana Bejar tweeted, later telling CNN that locals were already at a disadvantage because appointments were primarily made available through an English-only smartphone app.
In a study released Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest the disturbing example in Washington Heights is far from the only one.
Black and Latino Americans were severely underrepresented in the first month of vaccinations nationwide, according to the CDC, who sounded the alarm over a “potential disparity” in the administration of COVID-19 shots.
Just 5.4 percent of Americans who received at least one dose of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were Black. Hispanic and Latino Americans made up 11.5 percent of vaccinations, compared with 60.4 percent who were white.
Some 14.4 percent of people categorized their race as mixed or “other.” The data come with a caveat, though: Of the 12.9 million people who were vaccinated, information on race and ethnicity was available for only 6.7 million. Some jurisdictions didn’t report race or ethnicity data at all.
Black Americans make up 13.4 percent of the country’s population, Latinos 18.5 percent, and white people 60.1 percent, according to the Census Bureau. The rate of vaccination among white people is proportional to the makeup of the country’s population—not so among Black Americans.
“There’s a lot of people on the fence, and no one there to answer the questions they have,” Dr. Donald Alcendor, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Meharry Medical College—a historically Black medical school in Nashville—told The Daily Beast.
“So they’re getting a lot of hearsay. They want to see somebody who looks like me get the vaccine and be fine after they get it.”
With new mutant strains of COVID-19 arriving in the country, the hit to Black communities is at risk of becoming catastrophic, Dr. Peter Hotez wrote in The Daily Beast this week.
“A perfect storm is brewing in Black communities across America,” he wrote. “The increased COVID-19 exposure in low-income neighborhoods, high rates of co-morbidities and deaths in younger age groups, lack of vaccine access, and vaccine refusal, all work to ensure that adult Black people will sustain devastating losses.”
The demographics of health-care workers, who were prioritized for vaccination, do not explain the disparity. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 16 percent of health-care workers in the U.S. are Black, 13 percent are Latino or Hispanic, and 60 percent are white.
In the Black community, Alcendor said, a history of racism in the health-care system leads people to be less trusting of vaccines, a problem exacerbated by conspiracy theorists falsely attributing the death of baseball legend Hank Aaron to the vaccine.
“People are concerned with how quickly this was developed,” he said. “Naming this project as ‘Project Warp Speed’ gave people the idea this was rushed along.”
Alcendor acts as a community liaison for Meharry’s clinical trial of the Novavax coronavirus vaccine. He said his team struggled to get Hispanic and Latino people to participate in the trial. Many were concerned that providing their personal information could lead to them being turned over to immigration authorities.
“If you want to vaccinate everyone besides undocumented folks, you’re gonna have a reservoir of infections that’s gonna keep this monster going for a long time,” Alcendor said.
The low vaccination rate among Black Americans starkly correlates with the devastating and disproportional effect the coronavirus has had on the same demographic. The CDC found that Black Americans were 1.4 times more likely than white people to become infected, 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19.
The CDC’s study also found that far more women have received vaccine doses than men: 63 percent of people who received it were women, 37 percent men. These data come with more clarity: 97 percent of those vaccinated reported their sex. The study’s authors reasoned that two intersecting factors were at play in the difference: three-quarters of health-care workers are women, and 65 percent of long-term care facility residents are women as well.
State governments successfully targeted older Americans for vaccination, according to the study, which found that 55 percent of those vaccinated were over 50 years old, with 99.9 percent of vaccinated people reporting their age.