Seniors 70 and older were vaccinated by appointment {Feb. 6} at Southwest Tennessee Community College Whitehaven Center. Helen Woods, a retired nurse, was glad to get her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. {Photo: Shelby County Health Department, Twitter)

Almost as quickly as the COVID-19 rollout of vaccines across the nation, a distribution disparity gap opened between communities of color and whites receiving the vaccines.

According to an analysis of 17 states by the Associated Press, African Americans in each of those states were being vaccinated at levels well below their percentage of the general population. 

The numbers were the more remarkable since African Americans represent a larger percentage of the nation’s healthcare workers designated for priority vaxxing.

North Carolina and Mississippi were among the states releasing racial demographics. 

In North Carolina, African Americans make up 22 percent of the population and 26 percent of the healthcare workforce. However, only 11 percent of those vaccinated are African American.

In Mississippi, 15 percent of vaccinations administered were given to African Americans, while that community comprises 38 percent of coronavirus cases and 42 percent of total fatalities.

The Racial Equity and Health Policy Program at the Kaiser Family Foundation said data currently being reported shows a “consistent pattern of a mismatch between who is receiving the vaccine and who has been hardest hit by the pandemic.”

During a CNN town hall meeting Tuesday (Feb. 16) night, President Joe Biden addressed how his administration plans to combat the racial disparities in COVID-19 vaccine distribution. 

“The biggest part of this is physical access,” Biden said.

Tennessee’s numbers reflect a similarly growing racial gap in African Americans being vaccinated and those of their White counterparts.

In a Shelby County Joint Task Force update Feb. 9, Shelby County Health Department data placed the total number of vaccines at 80,000. Of that number, the breakdown was 43 percent White, 22 percent African American, 14 percent classified as “other” and 19 percent unidentified.

Dr. Stanley Dowell

“I wasn’t surprised by the racial gap in vaccinations,” said Dr. Stanley Dowell, an internal medicine specialist in Memphis. 

“My patients are seniors, for the most part, and some of them have told me, ‘Hey, Doc, I don’t have a car,’ or ‘I can’t wait in line three or four hours to get the vaccine.’”

Dowell said appointments are made online also, and many of his patients don’t have access to a computer, nor do they understand how the Internet works.

“Those who really want to be vaccinated are motivated,” said Dowell. “They are going to get it done. And those who don’t have the means or resources to get to a vaxxing station, we should reach out to them in some way. We have to devise ways to get them vaccinated.”

Health Department Medical Officer Dr. Bruce Randolph agreed.

“We have to push back on this disparity in every way we can,” said Randolph. “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine should be approved for emergency use shortly. It doesn’t have the refrigerator requirements of the Pfizer and Moderna presently on the market. Also, the single dose can be made more easily accessible.”

Dr. Bruce Randolph

Vaccines being administered through 11 Walmart Stores across the county is a strategy Shelby County plans to expand, said Randolph.

“Some areas of the county don’t have a Walmart,” said Randolph. “There isn’t one in North or South Memphis. We want to develop multiple partnerships with the community, public health systems and hospitals. 

“We want to utilize senior centers, community gathering places, primary providers, churches, home health nurses and other partnerships that will make vaccines more accessible.”

Memphis Branch NAACP President Van Turner Jr. said the organization is greatly concerned about the racial disparity in COVID-19 vaccinations for Memphis and Shelby County.

“This racial gap in vaxxing is the reality of our situation,” said Turner. “It is an issue we have to address, and we have to address it with urgency. Our seniors have obstacles preventing them from gaining access to the vaccine, and we have to bring the vaccine to them.”

Commissioner Van Turner Jr.

Turner applauded Randolph’s plan to involve multiple partnerships in distributing the vaccine more effectively in communities of color. Turner said he will get the NAACP involved in the effort.

“I think it would be great for the NAACP to be made a satellite vaxxing station,” said Turner. “We could organize it like a voter registration drive. A bus could make pick-ups and bring people to our headquarters to be vaccinated. We want to help in any way we can, and I plan to reach out to the health department to see what we can do.”

Tuesday, Biden gave three specific ways his administration aims to help reach a larger population in areas that are tough to get vaccines:

  • Send a million vaccines a week to community centers that care for the “toughest of the toughest neighborhoods in terms of illness” moving forward.
  • Make vaccines available to more than 6,000 pharmacies across the country “because almost everyone lives” near a pharmacy.
  • Send mobile vans and units into neighborhoods that are hard to get to, including the elderly and minority communities, who may not know how to register for the vaccine, “particularly in rural areas that are distant or in inner city districts.”