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COVID Vaccine Inequity Between Black And White Allegheny County Residents Increases

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

The COVID-19 vaccine supply has increased over the past month, as have racial disparities among vaccinated Allegheny County residents.

Analysis by the Pittsburgh-based Black Equity Coalition found that in mid-March Black residents made up of 6.8% of the county’s fully vaccinated population. Updated data from April 9 shows that has fallen to 5.8%.

According to U.S. Census data, Black people comprise 13.4% of the county’s population.

The coalition says data on where vaccinated people live can illuminate causes behind this growing inequity.

“This will allow us to see pockets of communities that are in need and then we can aim some of the vaccination efforts there,” said the coalition’s Tiffany Gary-Webb, a University of Pittsburgh epidemiologist specializing in health equity.

Gary-Webb also noted that COVID hospitalizations among Black patients have increased over the past month.

A March report from the coalition showed that similar disparities exist on the state level. Black and Hispanic people comprise 12.4% and 18.4% of Pennsylvanians, but only 7.6% of Blacks and 8.6% of Hispanics have received at least one dose of the vaccine. In comparison, whites comprise 60% of the population and 66% of the vaccinated population.

While visiting a neighborhood pharmacy in Harrisburg, state officials acknowledged that at the beginning of the vaccine rollout, there was an emphasis on speed so as to curtail the spread of COVID.

“Unfortunately, speed and efficiency does not always equate with equity. Equity requires us to take time to consider the needs and barriers of those who have been left behind,” said Dan Jurman, executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office for Advocacy and Reform.

During the visit, Gov. Wolf said that giving vaccines to trusted, neighborhood medical providers will increase access and alleviate some level of vaccine hesitancy.

“We need to make sure that we’re looking at smaller and smaller places, that we’re getting this into the hands of doctors and doctors’ offices in a way that we didn’t before,” said Wolf.

Gary-Webb agrees that the mass vaccination sites were an important and effective way to quickly inoculate a large number of people. But now that nearly half of Allegheny County’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, she said it is time to shift efforts to clinics that target specific populations. This is due not only to vaccine hesitancy concerns, but also to the fact that some people who are still unvaccinated face more barriers to health care.

“A lot of the mass vaccination sites have been in the outskirts of the city where you would need transportation,” she said.

Transportation and access to technology are barriers many people encounter when seeking health care. Additionally, many hourly employees have been unable to find vaccination appointments that align with their work schedules.

For this reason, Gary-Webb would like to see more clinics embedded in neighborhoods. While several churches are allowing their buildings to be used for vaccination sites, Gary-Webb would also like to see events take place at workplaces and senior centers.

Allegheny County’s health department, which consults with the coalition, says it is moving towards putting more resources into smaller clinics to reach people who have be unable to get vaccinated. Some of this work is already occurring: earlier this month the health department opened its first clinic in the Mon Valley, at Bethlehem Baptist in McKeesport.

However, health director Dr. Debra Bogen notes that her department only receives about 10% of all vaccine doses distributed to providers within Allegheny County.

“The health department does not control the distribution to the county as a whole, so this is really a countywide effort,” said Bogen. "We all need to do our part.”

The health department reports that about 12% of vaccine doses its administered have gone to Black residents.

Gary-Webb says while there have been improvements in vaccine access, she looks forward to health systems using the information and expertise of the coalition when making policy decisions, especially before a crisis occurs.

“I hope we do get there,” said Gary-Webb.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.