Vaccine rollout uneven and disappointing for communities of color and rural areas

Investigations

FILE – In this Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021 file photo, pharmacy technician Sochi Evans fills a syringe with a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Texas Southern University in Houston. Coronavirus cases are continuing to decline in the U.S. after a winter surge. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University say the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases in the country dropped below 100,000 on Friday, Feb. 12 for the first time since November 4. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP, File)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The distribution and administration of COVID-19 vaccines has had a rocky and disappointing start, particularly for communities of color and rural populations, according to health expert testimony at a Friday hearing before the U.S. House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee.

“Vaccination sites remain concentrated in wealthier, white areas, making it difficult for those who have borne the greatest infection burden to access shots,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-TX, chairman of the subcommittee.

Nationally, Latinos are more than three times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.3 times more likely to die of the virus than white people, Doggett said.

Experts testifying before the subcommittee via webcams said several barriers still present problems for communities of color, seniors and rural populations.

The Trump administration invested billions of dollars in vaccine development and manufacturing, which were “very very good things,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “But the Trump administration failed to pay adequate attention to what happens after vaccines are produced and delivered to states. Vaccines don’t end up in people’s arms by themselves.”

States were unprepared and short staffed, and there was also no concrete plan for implementation, Jha said.

The outlook has improved, however. As of Feb. 25, there have been a nationwide total of 91 million doses delivered, 67 million doses administered, and 22 million Americans have received both doses of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. Those numbers are still “far short” of the original “Project Warp Speed” vaccine plan started under the Trump administration to fully vaccinate 50 million Americans by the end of January, Jha said.

Rollout has ‘hardly been even’

In each state, the rollout and distribution of vaccines has “hardly been even,” Jha said.

“The communities hit hardest by the pandemic, Black and Latino communities, are the communities least likely to have been vaccinated,” Jha said. “At least that’s what we know from the data we have, but, unfortunately, we don’t have very good data on this.”

About half the states aren’t fully reporting vaccination data, and vaccination access is also too complex, Jha said. Online portals are too difficult to navigate, blocking access to people who aren’t tech savvy. Vaccination appointment times often must be made during normal working hours, making it difficult for essential workers to get them, he said.

“If all the vaccine appointments are gone during the day, if you are a bus driver, or even a doctor or nurse, and you work shifts, you aren’t going to be able to get an appointment,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of American Public Health Association. “We’ve got a whole range of logistical issues with where these vaccine sites are placed. So, if you don’t have a car, if you’re not close to public transportation, or if there is not a health infrastructure, and that is the issue in our rural communities, then you are going to have challenges in getting vaccinated.”

Doggett said taxpayers should have more information about the cost of the vaccine effort, including the terms of agreements made to obtain them, costs to date and the cost going forward. To that end, Doggett said he has filed legislation called the TRACK, or Taxpayer Research and Coronavirus Knowledge, Act to make that information public.

Though those testifying at the hearing acknowledged the vaccine rollout has been rocky, they said the outlook is improving. With a single-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson at the brink of federal approval, the rate of shots being administered will ramp up further.

Data from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission shows vaccines administered in nursing homes have drastically improved the number of virus cases in those facilities.

Active cases plummet in Texas nursing homes

The first vaccine shipments arrived in Texas in mid-December, and long-term care residents were some of the first to get those shots. Walgreens and CVS pharmacies administered most nursing home vaccines nationwide. By Jan. 29, the first round of vaccines were administered in nearly all Texas’ 1,200 facilities.

Nursing homes in Texas, and nationwide, have been hit the hardest by COVID-19. Nationally, over 170,000 people in long-term care have died of the virus, according to The COVID Tracking Project. Texas has seen more than 8,791 deaths in nursing homes, according to HHSC.

The number of active COVID-19 cases in Texas nursing homes has plummeted since January. The state reported a peak of more than 6,915 active cases on Jan. 4. Less than a month later, on Feb. 9, the state reported 2,609 current cases, a 62% reduction.

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