White North Carolinians are getting a disproportionate share of COVID-19 vaccine shots

North Carolina has emphasized equity in distributing COVID-19 vaccines, but so far, the group that has gotten shots so far is disproportionately white.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Health and Human Services launched the first of its ‘fireside chats’ with The Rev. William Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach and a former president of the North Carolina NAACP. During the discussion streamed on social media, he challenged some of the state’s plans and said North Carolina should consider how to get information to people who don’t have internet service.

DHHS is planning to a series of discussions with Native American tribal leaders, health experts, leaders in the Latinx communities, and representatives from the agriculture industry and others, said Deputy Secretary Ben Money.

Available data on vaccinations in North Carolina and some other states and cities show that vaccines are going disproportionately to white people. (A CDC report this week said that race and ethnicity information is missing for nearly half of the people in the country who got a first shot.)

Rev. William Barber II

While about 68% of North Carolina’s population is white, according to the U.S. Census, 81% of state residents who have received a first dose of vaccine are white.

North Carolina started vaccinating medical personnel and people who live and work in long-term care facilities, added people 75 and older, and then expanded availability to people 65 and older in mid-January. DHHS demographic information on vaccinations excludes doses given in long-term care facilities as part of a federal program.

Though the proportion of Black people in the state who have been vaccinated has grown since people started getting shots in December, only 12% of the people who have received a first dose of vaccine are Black, while Black residents make up about 21.5% of the state’s population. A little less than 10% of the state’s population is Latino; 2% of those who received a first dose of vaccine are Latino, according to DHHS.

A long history of medical abuses targeting Black people in the United States accounts for some vaccine hesitancy.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported last month that people across racial and ethic groups were more enthusiastic about a vaccine in January than they were the month before, but Black and Latino residents were more likely than White residents to say they wanted to “wait and see” how vaccines were working.  The report also found that people who live in rural areas are more wary of vaccines than people who live in cities or suburbs. The increased enthusiasm about vaccines between December and January was driven by Democrats and independents, the report said, while Republicans remain more reluctant.

While vaccination of Black and Latino residents is lagging, the pandemic continues to harm Black and Latino people disproportionately. Latino residents are 22% of total COVID-19 cases, according to DHHS, and 33% of the people with COVID-19 admitted to hospitals are Black.

It’s unclear how much vaccine hesitancy, difficulties in getting vaccines, or the structure of the state’s distribution program is driving disparities.

The demand for shots greatly outstrips the supplies of vaccines, making it hard for people to get them.  And North Carolina’s population of residents 65 and older tilts towards white people. Seventeen percent of residents in the state 65 or older are Black, and 2.2% are Latino.

Barber said that when the national priorities prioritized older people it was clear there would be racial disparities because of differences in life expectancy. Essential workers should be in line with older people, he said.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, DHHS secretary, said Tuesday night that older people are prioritized because they are more likely to die from COVID-19 complications. DHHS is taking wealth and demographics into account as it distributes vaccines, she said, and is working to counter inequities by having vaccine events in churches, planning events with HBCUs, and working with healthcare providers people trust.

Barber challenged the state to look at how low-income people might be at a disadvantage in getting shots because they don’t have reliable internet service or transportation to a vaccination site.

“A lot of the disparities come from people who do not have the access in their communities,” he said. “We have to look through the lens of race and economics at the same time.”

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