Racial disparities in COVID-19 vaccination rates persist as delta variant gains steam

Even as the U.S. approaches a coronavirus vaccination rate of 70 percent, racial disparities in who has gotten vaccinated persist, raising questions about how the communities of color that were hit hardest by the first wave of the pandemic will fare against the rapidly spreading delta variant.

That gap is beginning to close, but the road to an equitable distribution of vaccinations has been rocky.

It quickly became clear after the federal vaccination program began in December that vaccines weren’t reaching people who had fared worst in the pandemic, specifically Black and brown communities. Upon taking office in January, President BidenJoe BidenGOP report on COVID-19 origins homes in on lab leak theory READ: The .2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session MORE made the commitment to advance racial equity in every part of the federal government, including his administration’s ambitious national COVID-19 response and vaccination strategy.

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But inadequate health care resources in minority communities, rampant misinformation about the vaccines and the country’s sordid history of medical racism have all hampered inoculation efforts among Black people and other people of color.

On April 30 — Biden’s 100th day in office — 18.5 percent of Black people and 18.9 percent of Hispanic people had received a coronavirus vaccine, compared to 27.3 percent of white people, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show.

That CDC data isn’t as robust as it could be. Several states don’t supply race and ethnicity data for the people they are vaccinating. Overall that information is known only for about 62 percent of people in the U.S. who have received at least one vaccine dose. The figures also encompass all age groups; COVID-19 vaccines have yet to be approved for children under the age of 12. 

But despite the pitfalls in data collection, those figures have crept closer to each other in the past several months, signaling the vaccination rate for Black and Hispanic people has ticked upward.

As of Wednesday, 25.9 percent of Black people and 31.9 of Hispanic people in the country had received at least one dose, compared to 33.7 percent of white people.

“Over the last few weeks we have seen some trends that suggest some improvements in equity in vaccinations, in particular, with larger shares of recent vaccinations going to Hispanic and black people than what we've seen in terms of the total distribution of vaccinations so far,” Samantha Artiga, vice president and director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s racial equity and health policy program, told The Hill.

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According to the CDC, in the past two weeks, Hispanic people have accounted for just over 34 percent of first doses administered; roughly 17 percent of the U.S. identifies as Hispanic.

Black people have received a little more than 12 percent of first doses given in the past 14 days; about 13 percent of the country is Black.

Nonetheless, Artiga noted that the numbers underscore the need for federal and state vaccine equity efforts to move forward and not stagnate.

“At the same time, we also know that the pace of vaccinations [nationally] has slowed down,” she said.

“It's kind of more diversity among a smaller group being vaccinated, so there are improvements, but we're continuing to see the overall disparity in [vaccination] rates with Black and Hispanic people.”

There is mounting concern that communities of color in states with low vaccination rates could be susceptible to the quickly proliferating delta variant of COVID-19 that now makes up the majority of the U.S.’s coronavirus cases. While the variant, which appears to respond to vaccines currently on the market, does not appear more dangerous than previous strains, it is more transmissible.

“That's a real concern,” Lisa Cooper, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity, told The Hill.

“We know it’s more easily transmitted, and the more this virus circulates, the opportunity for it to then mutate further into a different kind of variant is greater,” she added.

Cooper is also a steering committee co-chair for the Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities, which was created by the National Institutes of Health last September to engage communities across the country with education about the vaccine to dispel misinformation and community mistrust. It operates in nearly two dozen states and Washington, D.C.

Caroline Compretta, who heads CEAL’s efforts in Mississippi, home to the largest Black population in the country by percentage, told The Hill in an email that the initiative's efforts in the state have been greatly aided by partnerships with “historically black colleges and universities, churches, migrant-serving organizations, and community health centers.”

While Mississippi has the country’s lowest vaccination rate, 36 percent of all vaccinations have gone to Black Mississippians, who make up nearly 38 percent of the state’s population.

The White House on Tuesday redoubled its pandemic response strategy in an effort to push those who are still unvaccinated in the country to get one of the vaccines.

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“Our fight against this virus is not over,” Biden said. “Millions of Americans are still unvaccinated and unprotected. And because of that, their communities are at risk. Their friends are at risk, the people that they care about are at risk. This is an even bigger concern because of the delta variant.”

During his remarks, the president highlighted increased community outreach efforts, including a door-to-door initiative and increase of mobile vaccination centers.

The administration is also deploying “surge response teams” to address the delta variant in states that have low vaccination rates.