Opinion|Vaccine Distribution in Underserved Communities

By Ella Olson

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As vaccination rates rise, it’s looking like America is returning to a pre-COVID way of life just in time for summer. Unfortunately, many will still be affected by the pandemic for months to come because of their inability to access the vaccine. Lower income communities suffer from a system that mistreats them constantly, so it’s no surprise that vaccine distribution has consistently excluded those in underserved neighborhoods.

Three COVID-19 vaccines are approved in the United States and are being widely distributed throughout the country. So far, as of May 22nd, about 49 percent of the population 16 and older has received at least one shot, and 39 percent has completed their vaccine schedule, whether that be one or two shots. It seems as if, on a national scale, America is getting closer to herd immunity every day. President Biden has certainly fulfilled promises he made during his campaign and the start of his presidency with COVID relief efforts. Biden pledged to get “at least 100 million COVID vaccine shots into the arms of the American people in the first 100 days.” He completed this goal after only 58 days in office. That being said, what does distribution of these vaccines look like on a smaller scale? How successful are poorer and underserved communities at getting their residents vaccinated?

Low income communities are the ones that have suffered the most overall from the pandemic, but their vaccination rates are disproportionate to vaccination rates in higher income communities. On average, the most vulnerable communities have between 25 and 30 percent of their residents vaccinated, and the least affected ones have about 35 percent completed. Why exactly is this?

There are a multitude of reasons as to why this is, and they range between the initial allotment of vaccines by state governors, to flaws in the distribution system within individual communities. In some of these states, as vaccines become more available, those with more money and resources are able to get to them faster than those more at risk. George Jones, a Washington resident who runs a nonprofit medical clinic, noticed this as soon as vaccines were available to seniors in his community. Specifically, he noticed that the clinic was full of white people, when it had generally only served African Americans. Those from disproportionately white and wealthy neighborhoods are able to take advantage of the vaccination system in poorer communities, whether they know they’re doing it or not. This can be widely blamed on the technology and development involved in finding information and booking appointments in vaccine clinics.

At the start of vaccine distribution an appointment was needed, especially when it was limited to high risk or priority groups only. To make these appointments, access to a computer or at least a telephone was needed, as well as internet connection. In a lower income community, these resources may be few and far between, and even then, they may be slow or hard to maneuver. This left vaccines available to richer groups that are able to use the technology with ease. In Washington, of about 7,000 appointments made among people 65 and over, 40 percent of them were made by residents of the whitest and richest communities who only had five percent of COVID deaths.

Not only this, but some states and counties are setting up clinics in only the wealthiest neighborhoods, which can make it virtually impossible for those in poorer neighborhoods to receive a dose. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently set up clinics in Florida’s richest communities, all of which had a median income 75 to 85 percent higher than the average. He later claimed it was due to the amount of seniors in these communities, but it still makes it difficult for those older than 65 in poorer neighborhoods to have their fair shot.

Everyone who is eligible for and wants the vaccine should be able to get it, but priority should go to the communities that are suffering the most. This doesn’t just mean the actual issuing of vaccines, but also the creation of a system in which those with less resources can succeed in. Governors and other officials, like mentioned above, shouldn’t only consider seniors in rich areas, and they shouldn’t allow for clinics in low income neighborhoods to be flooded by those who have other options.

Angela Major/WPR

Another roadblock in the vaccination of those in poorer communities has less to do with a poorly designed vaccination system and more to do with a poorly designed healthcare system that has abused people of color for years. Systemic discrimination and repeated counts of preventable injuries at the hands of the American healthcare system have, rightfully so, caused a large distrust towards vaccines and other medical care from black communities.

A survey done by Rand Corporations found high levels of mistrust and vaccine hesitancy among the 207 Black Americans surveyed. Since the 19th century, people of color have been used by the United States healthcare system in abominable ways. Medical schools and programs used the bodies of enslaved Black people for education, referring to them as “anatomical material”. Sterilization laws that became present in the 1960s and 70s preyed upon Black women of color in America, frequently resulting in them being sterilized without their permission or knowledge. This didn’t change with time, either. In an investigation done by the state of California, it was found that, “at least 144 incarcerated women were illegally sterilized between 2006 and 2010.” 24 percent of these women were Black, and 37 percent were Latinx. These cases, and many that have abused people of color within the medical community, continue to contribute to the distrust that Black Americans have for the government and it’s officials. A mistrust of healthcare workers in general, not strictly federal employees, was found in the Rand Corporations survey as well. It also reported that many Black Americans have more trust towards their public and community healthcare workers since they have closer ties to the community than federal or government officials.

The final element of vaccine hesitancy is the fear that it isn’t safe, hasn’t been tested enough or was created too quickly to not have harmful side effects. Many Americans, not just those in underserved communities, struggled with this when the vaccine first became available. Most people have never experienced a worldwide pandemic, where the need for a vaccine was so crucial. It seemed like it was developed only in a matter of months, which resulted in many questioning whether this was safe for them and their families to receive. This distrust of the vaccine in general, coupled with other disadvantages of living in an underserved community, makes it infinitely harder to get vaccines into the hands of people who need them most.

Officials in Raleigh, North Carolina, are targeting vaccines to the nine zip codes that have the highest COVID-19 rates in order to solve the biggest issue with uneven distribution. However, this may not solve the difficulty in making vaccine appointments for people in these underserved communities. Whether it’s difficulty navigating the website, scarcity of computers or laptops, or poor Wi-Fi and cell service, it’s hard to tell exactly what can be done to solve this. The best way may be to simply find people who can help. Whether they are already residents of that community, volunteers from clinics or agencies, or even citizens from wealthier communities that are able to, providing those who need help with volunteers may be the best way to promote equality among vaccine distribution. Additionally, information about vaccine clinics shouldn’t be limited to online forums only. There are millions of other ways to spread necessary information, like through a community paper, signs, postings in a local grocery store, or through public events like church gatherings. People shouldn’t need access to the internet in order to receive a possibly life saving vaccine.

On the other end of things, there’s a few ways to reach communities who have hesitancy towards the healthcare system. Public health messages should be authentic, and they should acknowledge systemic racism when targeted towards those affected by it. Increasing trust among these communities will certainly take time and effort, but it’s important to start rectifying some of the wrong that has been done to those without as much privilege as others. Vaccine distribution has been messy and unforgiving to those who live in poorer communities. Just because it started that way, though, doesn’t mean it has to end in the same fashion. Specifically targeting suffering communities through specialized clinics, volunteers and public health messages that don’t rely on having solid internet connection are the best ways to get vaccines into the arms of those who need it the most.

Ella Olson is a rising high school senior from Sumner, Washington and a blog writer for Youth Upholding Democracy. The views reflected in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Youth Upholding Democracy.

A group of students working to increase civic participation among our fellow young people. https://www.youthupholdingdemocracy.com/