I won’t mince words: The state is failing its most vulnerable residents when it comes to protecting them from COVID-19 and foundering in its duty to ensure equitable treatment during a public health crisis.
I have read all the challenges and even written about them myself. Distrust of the vaccine and the medical system in general. Obstacles to signing up for vaccine appointments and getting to them, as well. Jobs that make certain people more vulnerable to contracting the virus. Underlying health conditions that make virus exposure more dangerous. A health system that has historically practiced in inequitable treatment.
The thing is, we learned about all of these hurdles not long after the pandemic was first reported in the U.S. around a year ago. The data has been around, but the vaccine rollout has not adequately addressed the issues. The statistics don’t lie — and they are alarming.
White Marylanders have received more than four times as many doses of coronavirus vaccine as Black residents, an unacceptable and embarrassing gap. More important, and tragic, is that the numbers show the state continues to put people’s lives at risk when those who are most likely to die from the disease are less likely to get the vaccine.
We now hear that over the next several weeks the mass vaccination site at the Baltimore Convention Center will prioritize appointments for those in six Baltimore City ZIP codes with high rates of poverty — 21213, 21215, 21216, 21217, 21218 and 21205. That is welcome news, but indicative of the reactionary strategy that the state seems to be operating under. What if these ZIP codes had been prioritized from the start? We know these areas have been vulnerable. I live in 21215 and wrote about it months ago.
The state needs to be more aggressive and bolder at fixing the gaping disparity. With approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Maryland will get an increased number of doses — including 50,000 Johnson & Johnson doses this week, on top of what it is already getting from Moderna and Pfizer. Health officials should put a disproportionate amount in the poorest communities, and those with larger numbers of African American and Latinx residents to make up for the disproportionate number of vaccines that have gone to white residents. It’s only fair to swing the pendulum back to more of a balance — and do it deliberately and boldly.
And I don’t mean prioritizing just at the mass vaccination sites, but getting into the communities. Many of the people who need to be reached don’t have the luxury of traveling downtown from West Baltimore or East Baltimore during the middle of the day, especially if they are essential workers on the clock for eight hours. Maryland’s vaccine equity task force has identified churches as one way to reach these residents, and that is a good start. But churches don’t necessarily have the same impact they did a generation ago. We need even more of this kind of targeted outreach and to be using other kinds of venues. How about setting up in parking lots outside of major transportation hubs and or outside of factories, groceries stores and other places where people work? Workers could take a vaccine break rather than a bathroom or cigarette break.
On a larger national scale, we also can’t underestimate the power of Black and Latinx doctors, and not just in public service announcements and other marketing materials. People are calling their doctors to request the vaccine — and many who are hesitant are likely more willing to get the shot if a doctor who looks like them reassures them it is OK and administers it, especially older patients. I get that pharmacies are a convenient place to distribute vaccines, but people have more personal relationships with their doctors than a pharmacist.
I hate to be writing about this topic again, but enough can’t be said until we see a change. Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent callous remarks that Baltimore has gotten more than its share of vaccine only helped to fire up my ire. He seemed to have little compassion for the people who have lost loved ones to this deadly disease, and thought little how his words might have stung. Maybe his family has escaped such dire consequences, but many haven’t. Maybe his remarks were aimed at politicians, or even the media trying to hold him to task, but best believe average Marylanders heard what he said loud and clear. For me, his remarks came on the heels of learning that the father of someone I know, an African American Marylander, had died of the disease. Watching her grief play out on social media posts saddened me to the core.
The disparities in COVID-19 vaccination are real in Maryland, and we all need to keep talking about it until they are not.
Andrea K. McDaniels is The Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. Please send her ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Twitter address is @ankwalker.