An early line forms at the Jacob Javits Convention Center Covid-19 vaccination hub on March 4, 2021 in New York City.

As Vaccine Campaign Expands, A Racial Gap Persists

As of Tuesday, anyone in Alaska aged 16 or up is eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine. The announcement makes Alaska the first state to offer its residents — at least those old enough to receive the vaccine under current Food and Drug Administration policies — unrestricted access to the coveted shots. And it marks a new milestone in a massive national vaccination campaign. As of Friday morning, more than 64 million people in the United States have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. On average, the country is giving more than 2.2 million shots each day. That number could climb to 3 million by next month.

Still, four-in-five U.S. adults have yet to receive a single dose. And amid the expanding vaccination campaign, some scholars and analysts have raised questions about who has, and has not, been able to access Covid-19 vaccination.

In particular, a disproportionately large share of the vaccines are going to White people, while people of color — who have suffered higher rates of hospitalization and death from Covid-19 — have received relatively fewer shots.

Extensive data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and last updated on March 1, offers a state-level record of the disparities. In California, for example, which is 40 percent Hispanic, just 19 percent of vaccinations have gone to Hispanic people. And in Georgia, which is around 33 percent Black, only around 19 percent of Covid-19 vaccinations have gone to Black residents. The racial disparities for Black residents are even starker in Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania.

The disparity in vaccination rates between Black and White Americans has sparked particular concerns and public attention. One widely circulated explanation for the gap has been Black vaccine hesitancy — that, because of historic and ongoing discrimination against Black Americans in the medical system, many are hesitant to get the new Covid-19 vaccines.

But some critics have argued that this vaccine-hesitancy narrative, while reflecting real issues about discrimination, misunderstands the problem.

Some Black Americans are distrustful of Covid-19 vaccines, but, according to some polls, the most vaccine-hesitant demographic in the U.S. is actually White Republicans. And recent surveys suggest that a sizeable majority of Black Americans want the vaccine. Indeed, there’s evidence that other factors, including policy choices about vaccine distribution, are doing more to drive the racial disparity.

Health experts “don’t really think distrust of the vaccine explains the large gaps we’re seeing in vaccination rates,” reporter Alex Samuels writes in FiveThirtyEight this week. “What’s more, blaming the gap wholly on distrust is dangerous because it puts the onus on Black Americans around vaccinations and distracts us from the real reasons why the inoculation rate is lower.” Instead, experts argue, policymakers have not invested the resources to create accessible, equitable ways to sign up for vaccine appointments. Getting slots can also be more difficult for frontline essential workers, who are disproportionately people of color. And analyses by NPR and West Health Policy Center and the University of Pittsburgh have found that, in many places, Black and Hispanic people have to travel farther than White people to reach vaccination sites.

Still, a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation documents dozens of new initiatives across the country intended to address those issues. “Ensuring equitable access to the vaccines,” the report argues, “will be important to mitigate the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic for underserved populations, prevent widening disparities going forward, and achieve broad population immunity.”

Also in the News:

• On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19. The CDC considers people to be fully vaccinated two or more weeks after receiving the second shot of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, or the single shot of the newly released Johnson & Johnson vaccine. People who are vaccinated, according to the guidelines, may socialize with other fully vaccinated people — unmasked, indoors, and without social distancing — as well as with unvaccinated people from a single household, as long as all members have low risk of contracting a severe case of the illness. Vaccinated people can also skip quarantine if they come into contact with someone who has Covid-19, but who does not have symptoms. The CDC guidelines, though, still recommend many restrictions. Vaccinated people should, for instance, continue to wear masks and social distance in public, avoid medium and large gatherings, and follow relevant travel rules. “We believe these recommendations are an important first step in our efforts to resume everyday activities in our communities,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. “However, we remain in the midst of a serious pandemic, and still over 90 percent of our population is not fully vaccinated, though we are working hard to get there.” (NPR)

• Brazil’s leading health institute, Fiocruz, is warning that the capital cities of 25 of the country’s 27 states are close to seeing their health systems collapse amid a surge of Covid-19 cases. According to Fiocruz, in 15 of those cities more than 90 percent of intensive care unit beds are occupied, and both Campo Grande and Porto Alegre have exceeded their capacity. President Jair Bolsonaro has continued to downplay the threat of the coronavirus, even as the country recorded 2,286 deaths on Wednesday. During a public event last week, as the death rate surged, he told citizens to “stop whining.” Bolsonaro continues to argue that protecting the economy is more important than implementing regional quarantine measures. Epidemiologists are also concerned that the fast-spreading P.1 variant of the virus, which appears to be more transmissible and better able to evade the body’s immune defense than other forms, could worsen the country’s situation and pose a threat to other nations. “Brazil is a threat to humanity” said Fiocruz epidemiologist Jesem Orellana in an interview with AFP news agency. (BBC)

• The latest assessment from the U.S. Drought Monitor, a government-backed program tracking dry conditions, has raised new concerns about an extended and stubborn drought across the American West. “The scope of the western drought is chilling,” reported CNN this week, noting that extreme dry conditions extend across seven states, encompassing some 265,200 square miles. Almost 80 percent of the western U.S. is now under drought conditions. Scientists have expressed concerns that the region is entering a megadrought — drying patterns that can continue for decades — on a scale that could exceed any recorded drought in the region in the past 1,200 years. A study published last year in Science suggests that atmospheric shifts caused by human-induced climate change are driving this particular megadrought. “Climate change is playing a significant role in influencing water supplies in the West,” noted a recent piece in The Washington Post. (Multiple Sources)

• And finally: The biotechnology company Bluebird Bio, which last month halted clinical trials of a gene therapy treatment for sickle cell anemia after a participant developed leukemia, now says it has found “important evidence” demonstrating that its experimental treatment was not to blame for the cancer. The leukemia case had prompted both Bluebird Bio and the National Institutes of Health to suspend clinical trials of the therapy, but officials at Bluebird Bio say lab tests on the cancer-stricken patient indicate the leukemia likely occurred naturally, and that the disabled virus used to deliver the treatment into cells acted on a gene that’s unrelated to the cancer. A company executive also walked back reports that a second clinical trial participant developed myelodysplastic syndrome, a precursor to leukemia, saying that the patient may not have met the formal criteria for a diagnosis. Bluebird Bio is currently in talks with the Food and Drug Administration to resume testing the treatment, which some see as a best hope for curing a debilitating blood disorder that affects millions of people around the world. (Science)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Brooke Borel, Lucas Haugen, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.