Lawmakers push to find out why Black and brown communities aren't getting COVID vaccine

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Recent CDC reports show a troubling lack of data on the matter.

Democratic lawmakers are urging the U.S. Health and Human Services Department to address racial health disparities related to the COVID-19 vaccination rollout.

In a Monday letter to HHS-designate Xavier Becerra, Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) called for him to "collect, disseminate, and make publicly available (a national) demographic breakdown" of current and future administration of vaccines.

"The pandemic has only exacerbated already existing vulnerabilities and inequalities, particularly in access to health care," Meng wrote. "Furthermore, inadequate access to the COVID-19 vaccine increases health disparities among vulnerable populations across the United States."

Last Thursday, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Edward J. Markey (D-MA) sent a similar letter to acting HHS secretary Norris Cochran, pushing for "robust demographic data."

They noted that there does not currently exist comprehensive racial, ethnic, and demographics data on those inoculated.

"[T]his lack of information will exacerbate existing health disparities and result in the loss of lives in our most vulnerable communities," the wrote.

The Biden administration itself has expressed concern over the gaps in vaccination data.

Referring to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Monday — which showed that just "39.6% of persons who were vaccinated represented racial and ethnic minorities" as well as "unknown or missing race/ethnicity information" that further complicated the numbers — Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, Biden's COVID-19 Health Equity task force chief, told reporters, "We cannot ensure an equitable vaccination program without data to guide us. I'm worried about how behind we are. We must address these insufficient data points as an urgent priority."

"These challenges reflect longstanding and deeply rooted systemic challenges. We're not suggesting these problems are easily solved," she added.

What analyses exist reveal that minority communities, particularly Black Americans, have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and overlooked in subsequent vaccination efforts.

A Kaiser Health News analysis of the initial weeks of the vaccine rollout found that Black Americans were "receiving COVID vaccinations at dramatically lower rates than white Americans," and that vaccinations of white Americans were "in many cases two to three times higher."

The most striking disparity was in Pennsylvania, where 1.2% of white residents were vaccinated compared to 0.3% of Black residents.

Lawmakers say the CDC needs to do more to address the issue.

On Jan. 19, Warren cited the Kaiser analysis, tweeting, "@CDCgov needs to add race and ethnicity data to its public dashboard immediately — we can’t address what we can’t see."

Existing data shows racial minorities are far less likely to be vaccinated in general when compared to white people, according to a separate Kaiser Family Foundation report from December, which cited data from the CDC on influenza vaccination rates.

That data showed that during the 2018-2019 season, 39% of Black adults, 37% Hispanic adults, 44% of Asian adults, and 38% of American Indian or Alaska Native adults were vaccinated compared to 49% of white adults.

COVID-19 has hit communities of color hard, meaning the need to vaccinate them is especially crucial.

According to a CDC analysis last November, Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans were dying from the coronavirus at close to three times the rate of white Americans, while Asian Americans were dying at more than double the rate of their white counterparts.

As NBC News noted in December, Black Americans, long mistreated by the U.S. medical system, harbor more distrust and skepticism about vaccinations. Fewer than half of Black Americans said they would get vaccinated, a December Pew Research Center poll found.

"It is not paranoia, it is not that Black people don’t ‘get it’ or are simply uneducated and unintelligent about their health. The reality is that their worries have been earned and will not be corrected until medicine and public health and the government reckon with the past and what has been done to Black and brown people," said Dr. Brittani James, a Chicago-based physician, speaking with the outlet.

Black medical professionals are working to change things.

Morehouse School of Medicine President Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice told the Undefeated in December that she and her team had "been developing linguistically and culturally appropriate materials to help people to get access to testing and educational material about COVID-19."

Speaking about early vaccinations and vaccine trials, she added, "[W]e wanted to make sure there was an equity lens to all of this and that we needed to ensure that people understood that the reasons we were being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 was because of systemic racism and practices that have ensued for years and resulted in health disparities."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation