The Harford County Health Department is taking steps to ensure equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine as inoculation of the county’s Black and Hispanic residents lags behind, mirroring trends elsewhere.
Racial disparities of who gets the vaccine first appeared in January when the 1A group was being inoculated, Harford County Health Officer David Bishai said. While that may have been due to the demographics of the 1A group, the imbalance persisted through vaccination of the 1B group, and data from the last week indicates that the 1B over age 75 group shows a worse disparity than the younger 1B group.
Thus far, 14% of the county’s non-Hispanic white and Asian populations have received a first-dose of the vaccine, while only 7% of its Black population and 6% of its Hispanic population have gotten their first dose, according to data from the health department. That disproportion by race is seen in state and national immunization trends as well, he said.
“This is a tragedy. We have an epidemic that has taken such a large toll on our minorities because of social factors from the past. Now we have a product that can undo COVID-19′s health disparities,” Bishai said. “We just have to get the product to everybody as we continue to work to correct the problems that led to disadvantage.”
The health department is working to address the racial disparity in pre-registrations by forming partnerships with citizens and doing its best to answer questions and educate the public, Bishai said. He implored county residents to call their neighbors, loved ones and families to help them register. The department’s web-intake system is also in two languages to ease registration; the department also has phone scripts in both English and Spanish.
County Councilman Andre Johnson represents the Edgewood area, Harford’s only minority-majority Zip code. Johnson said the inequity stems from equal parts lack of information and access. He has been trying to get the word out that the vaccine is safe and effective to those who have the opportunity to register for it. He is also discussing the coverage rate in Edgewood with Bishai, and the two will hold a listening session in early March to hear from the local leaders and the community.
“It is definitely a problem as far as the equity standpoint,” he said. “Many folks do not know where to register, how to register.”
Johnson said his district is aging; many of them are not tech-savvy — or completely avoid computers — so reaching them can be a challenge. He posited that sign-ups could be done at churches to register hard-to-reach seniors, or flyers in newspapers could be taken out.
“We have to re-imagine how we get the word out because not everyone is on social media,” he said.
Vaccine coverage in Harford County is highest in its center around Bel Air, Bishai said. The Health Department’s vaccine clinics, which have been held at Patterson Mill Middle / High School and the McFaul Activity Center, are both in Bel Air.
Fallston and Edgewood are roughly equidistant to Bel Air, but Fallston has a much higher coverage rate — 16% compared to Edgewood’s 5% as of Feb. 17. That suggests that distance someone lives from a clinic is not a deterrent to getting the vaccine, Bishai said. But Fallston is about 96% white, while Edgewood’s population is 48% Black, according to U.S. Census data.
The percentage of Black residents who are vaccinated at private pharmacies is also low — between 4% and 8%, Bishai said. Securing those appointments at pharmacies can be a challenge. Their availability across the state has given rise to a number of Facebook groups exchanging information about vaccine sites and helping others secure the coveted appointments.
With the coming reopening of schools, vaccination clinics at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen and Mountain Christian Church in Joppa will replace clinics at Patterson Mill and the McFaul center starting the week of March 15, Bishai said.
Though distance does not appear to be an obstacle to county residents getting the vaccine, if it is, he said the new locations should help.
Aberdeen and Joppa are still majority white, about 60% and 76% respectively, but have a greater minority population than Bel Air, according to Census data.
The clinics’ locations will not affect who is offered appointments from the health department’s pre-registration list, Bishai emphasized.
“It is state and county policy to treat all 1B candidates the same regardless of race, ethnicity or zip code,” he said. “Aberdeen and Joppa have no advantage in being invited to get a vaccine. Anyone who has registered with the county is treated the same based on their priority grouping.”
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So far, 14% of the county’s population has been vaccinated, according to data from the health department.
Over the last week, 11% of all vaccinations for Harford residents have been administered at the mass-vaccination center at Six Flags in Prince George’s County, Bishai said.
As of Feb. 19, the health department has received 14,180 first doses and 10,000 second doses, according to its website. It has distributed 11,057 of the first doses and 5,099 of the second doses.
Since the inoculation effort began in Harford, the supply of vaccines has been its greatest limitation. County leaders have appealed to the state for more doses, but vaccine deliveries have remained stagnant. Bishai surmised that the state was anticipating more growth at its mass vaccination sites, the newest of which will open in Charles County by March 11, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday.
If it had the vaccines, Bishai said the Harford health department could do much more than it currently does. The health department’s weekly supply of vaccines has remained stagnant at 1,400.
“We can vaccinate 1,200 people a day at one site and not break a sweat. If we had enough vaccines we could vaccinate eight times more people than our allocation of 1,400 doses per week,” Bishai said. “If we had enough vaccine, the health department has the clinical capacity right now to vaccinate the entire county by July. Furthermore, we could focus on reaching the people who are not being reached. Yet the state has decided to keep our allocation flat.”
County officials have also put forward Aberdeen’s Ripken Stadium as a possible site for a mass-vaccination clinic, though Bishai previously said he does not think such a clinic is likely to open in Harford County. The Southern Maryland Blue Crabs minor league baseball team’s stadium in Charles County will host the newly announced mass-vaccination clinic — the fourth one to open in the state.