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Poll: Black Marylanders embrace COVID-19 vaccine; rate discrepancies persist | COMMENTARY

University of Maryland School of Medicine Vaccine Experts, Dr. Matthew Laurens (left) Dr. Karen Kotloff (Center) discuss their COVID-19 research with UMBC President Dr. Freeman Hrabowski
University of Maryland School of Medicine Vaccine Experts, Dr. Matthew Laurens (left) Dr. Karen Kotloff (Center) discuss their COVID-19 research with UMBC President Dr. Freeman Hrabowski

Vaccine hesitancy among Black Marylanders has plummeted. Sixty percent of Black residents say they will either get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they can or indicate they’ve already received at least one dose, according to the most recent Goucher College Poll. That’s the same percentage who said they would not get such a vaccine just five months ago. The causes and public health implications of this dramatic shift are worth considering, as are some potential blind spots of the data.

For starters, the drop in hesitancy didn’t just happen, nor can it just be explained simply by the availability of the vaccine. Black doctors, public health professionals, and leaders like UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski have offered their time and, in some cases, public profile to educate and alleviate concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines.

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Black political leaders have also stepped up. Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott, City Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa, along with several members of the City Council and state legislative delegation, have been a consistent, visible presence in the city urging residents to get vaccinated. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford also have used their platforms in a similar fashion throughout the state.

This work has undoubtedly made an impact.

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The Goucher College Poll provides a state-level measure that challenges assumptions about the preferences of Black Marylanders. But there are limits to the statewide data. A significant drop in vaccine hesitancy does not mean that vaccine hesitancy no longer exists.

Black people share the painful history of Tuskegee and Henrietta Lacks, but they are not a monolith. We don’t know precisely how attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccine differ among Black Marylanders along demographic and geographical lines. More than a third of Black residents either want to “wait and see” how the vaccines work or don’t want to take one at all. Given that vaccine hesitancy differs across education and income more broadly, it’s likely that some Black residents harbor higher reluctance than others. The leaders who best understand the dynamics of their local communities should continue the necessary work of promoting the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.

Still, the poll results illuminate an important reality: the differences in vaccination rates between white and Black Marylanders cannot be dismissed as a result of hesitancy.

Recent data from the Maryland Department of Health show that white residents have received four times as many doses of coronavirus vaccine as Black residents. Another way to look at it: about 15% of vaccine recipients are Black, and Black people make up 31% of the state’s population. And of specific concern to Black Baltimoreans, most of the doses of the vaccine allocated to Baltimore City have been administered to non-city residents.

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To be sure, the inequities in vaccine distribution are not unique to Maryland or Baltimore City. Data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that in the 34 states that report vaccination data by race there is a pattern of Black people receiving smaller shares of vaccinations compared to their share of the total population.

Black people, as well as other racial minorities, have already experienced higher rates of infection and death than their white counterparts in Maryland and nationwide. Black workers are also more likely to be employed in a front-line job where they face greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. Thus, as the state moves toward reopening businesses and schools, it’s critical that vaccines get into Black arms at the same rate as those of white residents.

As the volume of vaccines increases over the next few weeks, addressing the supply-side of the problem, Gov. Larry Hogan must focus state efforts on decreasing the racial disparities in vaccination rates by addressing issues of access rather than hesitancy. State officials need to listen to local leaders and residents, particularly those in working class, majority-Black neighborhoods, to identify the best ways to distribute the vaccine in their communities. State support for a community-based approach that includes an increase in small volume hyper-localized or even mobile sites, and help from trusted community partners as well as transportation to larger mass vaccination centers is a good first step.

A lack of transportation to vaccination sites, problems with the registration system, and conflicts with work schedules are not problems of reluctance. They are systemic barriers to access that threaten our shared goal as Marylanders: herd immunity and a return to our pre-pandemic lives.

Mileah Kromer (Mileah.Kromer@goucher.edu) is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts the Goucher College Poll. Donalto Marshall is a junior at Goucher College and a student supervisor at the Goucher College Poll.

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