The Vaccine Divide: FOX 5 discusses race in vaccine distribution with area health leaders

Nearly every new data metric shows the race to vaccinate against COVID-19 is just as unequal as the virus's disproportionate attack on communities of color in the United States.

In the latest statistics from the CDC, 60 percent of those vaccinated in the U.S. are white and just five percent are Black. FOX 5's Evan Lambert sat down with three health leaders here in the D.C. region to discuss their efforts to undo the vaccine divide.

READ MORE: Race disparity in DC region’s early vaccine rollout data

Dr. Ankoor Shah heads up D.C.'s COVID-19 vaccination program.

FOX 5 asked Dr. Shah why early data on vaccine distribution shows white people far outpacing Blacks and Latinos in getting these life-saving shots, all for a virus that's killing people of color, the CDC says, nearly three times more frequently than whites.

"It's a history of decades, hundreds of years of systemic racism and structural racism that is embedded in our health care access and capacity and our ability for individuals to seek health care," Dr. Shah said.

Health leaders seem to agree systemic racism plays a large role. So does the limited supply and the push to get people vaccinated quickly. It's led to a competitive atmosphere where they say people with more resources, largely white people, have won, according to Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County's health officer.

"Unfortunately, none of this is surprising when it rolls out into a space where we have extremely limited doses of vaccine that has created a competition as opposed to fair access," Dr. Gayles said.

In D.C., hundreds of vaccine appointments released online can go in minutes. DC Health says the online portal represents just 30 percent of all available vaccines. The rest goes to clinics and hospitals, many serving minority communities.

READ MORE: DC COVID-19 vaccine data shows racial disparity among Black, Hispanic residents

But the majority of the shots are going to the richer, whiter wards.

According to D.C.'s data, between nearly 50 and 60 percent of seniors in majority-white Wards 2 and 3 have gotten at least one dose. That compares to 16 and 19 percent in Wards 8 and 7, respectively.

That kind of disparity led the District to reserve about half the appointments per week for those in zip codes with more Black residents. After the zip code priority went into effect, appointments going to the whitest wards dropped from 70 percent to just under 50 percent.

"What we were able to do was see that data and then make adjustments," Dr. Shah said.

In Virginia, white people have been vaccinated nearly six times the rate of Black people and nearly 13 times the rate of Latinos.

Fairfax County’s Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu points to hesitancy in communities of color as a factor in who is getting the vaccine. She says the health department worked to overcome that and saw success with long-term care facility workers, but fighting misinformation remains a priority.

"We know that with vaccine hesitancy, overtime people are more inclined to jump and bring their arm when they see other people that they know who have gotten the vaccine that are alive and doing well," Dr. Addo-Ayensu said.

"I think it's just work in progress, that we need to continue to encourage people to empower them to make that choice when the vaccine becomes available to them," she said.

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Officials warn that race data on vaccines is at the mercy of a lot of the data being missing.

For the first month of vaccinations, the CDC says race wasn’t recorded for nearly half of those vaccinated.

In D.C., vaccine clinics for seniors in low-income housing are aimed at reaching underserved communities.

All three health leaders FOX 5 spoke with say mobile clinics going into communities of color may be a better option when more vaccine becomes available.