As COVID-19 vaccine distribution slowly but surely continues in the state, minority populations still represent a small percentage of those that have received the vaccine, and officials and advocates say more strides toward minority equity and access need to happen.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine hasn’t waivered in recent messages that vaccine doses coming to the state are scarce.
“We know there’s not enough,” DeWine said again on Tuesday.
As of Tuesday, state data showed 5.62% of the state’s population, or more than 656,000 people, had “started the vaccine,” meaning they have received at least the first dose of the two-dose vaccine. Statewide, 4.63% of white Ohioans have received at least their first dose. The Black population only represents 2.07% of those who’ve begun vaccination.
A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis showed, as of Jan. 19, the demographic distribution for vaccines was 82% white and 6% Black.
Some data is missing from the analysis, with 19% of the vaccination distribution showing “unknown race” and 24% showing “unknown ethnicity.” A spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Health said the race and ethnicity data is voluntarily filled in by the person receiving the vaccine, so the department does not control whether that data is completed.
The absence of or small amount of data showing people of color receiving the vaccine — though reporting of vaccine distribution is still in its early stages — could stem from a continuing distrust by the Black community and people of color of vaccines and the government’s implementation of public health.
“We’re still monitoring the data, but the the fact of the matter is that our health care system is not set up to serve Black Americans well,” said Hope Lane, policy associate at Ohio-based think tank Center for Community Solutions.
Lane said the Tuskegee Experiment, in which Black participants were intentionally not treated for syphilis, and the experiments conducted on Black women in the early days of gynecology are “not so distant history,” and a shortage in doctors and pharmacists of color doesn’t help the hesitancy some have in receiving treatment or vaccines.
That situation combines with a lack of forethought in the plans for vaccine distribution, according to Lane.
“There are drive-up sites, but when you don’t have a car you can’t drive-up,” Lane said. “There’s just things like that are part of the lack of access.”
Even statewide distribution of the vaccine to pharmacies does not equal access in some areas.
“Putting it just in pharmacies doesn’t work in communities like Dayton, because we have food deserts and prescription deserts in our African-American communities,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley on Tuesday.
Whaley was a part of a press conference to push for a new COVID-19 funding plan put together by President Joe Biden, but said strategies around getting the vaccine into minority communities must occur on the local, state and federal level to work.
That includes bringing the vaccine to places where the communities gather, like churches. Of the 800 vaccines Public Health of Dayton & Montgomery County received recently, 200 of those were placed at St. Margaret’s Church in west Dayton, according to Whaley.
“So (the vaccine) would be in a place that is trusted in our community, connected to our community, for the African-American community,” Whaley said.
Carol Smith, a retired nurse from the Ohio State Penitentiary emphasized the need for education and outreach in order to get past the fears that are present because of the history of the country’s health care system.
“We must acknowledge the concerns and acknowledge that these concerns are legitimate,” Smith said during the press conference. “Here comes the paramount role of education to those around us, who need encouragement and the knowledge to educate themselves and others.”
DeWine has said the state government will begin some “communication and education strategies aimed at minority communities,” such as town halls, marketing campaigns, and a “tool kit” for community partners to address vaccine hesitancy.
On Tuesday he mentioned partnerships with churches as another way to “make sure we’re covering everyone in the state of Ohio.”
“It’s an ongoing effort,” DeWine said. “We’re not there yet, but it is what we’re going to strive for, what we’re going to continue to strive for.”
The efforts will begin Feb. 8, DeWine said, aligning with the week vaccines are scheduled to be distributed to Ohioans aged 65 and older. That week, vaccines will be taken directly to “affordable senior housing” facilities, where DeWine said the threat of serious illness is high because of the age of the residents and “potential barriers to accessing the vaccine.”