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Maryland must do more to get COVID vaccine to African American, LatinX communities COMMENTARY

Walgreens Pharmacist Katherine Lawrence prepares doses of the COVID-19 vaccine as she and fellow pharmacists administer the first round of the COVID-19 vaccine Monday, January, 25 2021. Residents and staff at Brightview Avondell in Bel AIr received their first round of the COVID-19 vaccine Monday, January, 25 2021. (Matt Button, The Aegis)
Walgreens Pharmacist Katherine Lawrence prepares doses of the COVID-19 vaccine as she and fellow pharmacists administer the first round of the COVID-19 vaccine Monday, January, 25 2021. Residents and staff at Brightview Avondell in Bel AIr received their first round of the COVID-19 vaccine Monday, January, 25 2021. (Matt Button, The Aegis) (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

We know it’s early in the COVID-19 vaccine game, but preliminary data show the most vulnerable demographics, people of color who are most likely to contract the virus and die from it, are already getting left behind. In Maryland, about 16% of the first doses for which race data is available went to African Americans, and 4.6% to Latino people. White people have received 66% of the first shots. Nationwide, a similar pattern is forming. A report by Kaiser Health News found that in 16 states that have released data by race, white residents are being vaccinated in many cases at two to three times higher the rates of African Americans and Latinos.

The disparity is very clear and needs to be stopped in its tracks earlier rather than later or it will only worsen over time. Right now those communities that are better resourced have been able to better navigate the mess of a rollout — like the Catholic and other private schools that reached out to Mercy Medical Center to coordinate teacher vaccines at its clinic in downtown Baltimore. (The hospital is vaccinating some city schoolteachers as well).

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Many individuals, however, have a chance of getting a shot only if they can sit on the internet for hours searching appointments, call different providers offering the vaccine or drive a little out of the way for an available spot. Not everyone has the luxury of doing that. Making matters worse is Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to expand eligibility to those age 65 and over when there is already not enough vaccine to go around — something he said he did at the request of the federal government as well as county health departments. He could have said no, just as some counties have now said they won’t expand who is eligible until they have the supply to meet the demand. That would have been leadership. Instead, the bottleneck is about to get worse, and we fear communities of color will be left further behind.

State officials and others have pointed out that the first phase of vaccine administration largely went to front-line medical workers, which could have contributed to the disparity. But medical staff just doesn’t include doctors, who are largely white; they also include nurses, cafeteria staff, janitors and a wide range of technicians, who are non-white. People over age 75 have also been getting the vaccine, and there are plenty of people of color in that age range. Those who have gotten the vaccine should be just as diverse as the staff at hospitals.

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“Vaccine hesitancy” by communities of color distrustful of the medical community, internet access issues and the lack of doctors and health care workers of color are also very valid reasons for the disparity that state officials have pointed to. Still, plenty of African Americans desperately want the vaccine, and to get back to a relatively normal life, but can’t get an appointment.

Dr. Mark Martin, deputy director of the state’s Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities promises a mass vaccination campaign with athletes, academics, pastors, politicians and community and neighborhood leaders. We also suggest influencers with large followings on social media. Virtual town halls and the use of a sound truck encouraging vaccination are also in the works. Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, also said that the state will work with pharmacy and other partners to establish pop up clinics in hard-to-reach areas. The latter will be the key to reaching the most vulnerable — meet people where they are.

Public health clinics where people already go for care are also good places, as are mobile clinics in library, recreation center, senior center or public school parking lots. Mobile clinics are also needed where Latinos, who may avoid the doctor because of their immigration status, will feel safe going.

Governor Hogan and state health officials assured Marylanders at a Tuesday news conference that an equitable vaccination process is a priority for the state. They are building an infrastructure of vaccine sites that will be available to many different demographics, including mass sites at Six Flags America in Prince George’s County and M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, to be available once more vaccine comes online. That is a smart move and we are glad to see they’re addressing the problem. They are also using data to pinpoint the most vulnerable communities.

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Mr. Ricci said state officials will watch the trends closely over the next couple of weeks, and we hope that they are able to implement their strategy quickly to close the racial gap. We understand that they face challenges as the rollout across the nation has been sluggish and less than ideal because of the lack of a cohesive plan by the Trump administration. As the vaccine process moves further along and President Joe Biden’s plan is implemented, we hope to see more vaccine available for everybody, just as we did with testing sites early in the pandemic. But it needs to happen soon so that more lives are saved.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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