Why Black, Latino Hoosiers are being vaccinated at a lower rate than white counterparts

Shari Rudavsky Emily Hopkins
Indianapolis Star

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Black and Latino residents are far less likely to have received a vaccine than white residents, according to the Indiana Department of Health's vaccine dashboard

Specifically, Black Indiana residents comprise just under 10% of the state population, however they accounted for only 4% of those who have been vaccinated. About 7% of the state’s population is Hispanic or Latino but they represent only 2% of those who have been vaccinated.

This dynamic has been seen across the country, leading some experts to worry that in the rush to vaccinate, certain populations are being left behind.

Nationwide about 12% to 13% of the population is Black but only 5.4% of those who have been vaccinated, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. About 18% of the population is Latino but only 11.5% of those vaccinated.

Mary Boykin, 93, Indianapolis, gets a covid vaccination from physician assistant Jeanna Francis, at IU Health Neuroscience Center, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, on a day marked by the 100 thousandth coronavirus dose administered system-wide. The 100 thousandth dose was given earlier in the morning.

Such statistics, experts surmise, reveal that the public health community still has a long way to go when it comes to narrowing these disparities.

Myriad factors may contribute to the gap, Benjamin said earlier this week on a webinar held by the national public health advocacy group Resolve to Save Lives. In general, Black Americans are more reluctant to be vaccinated, he said. They may lack transportation to travel to vaccine clinics. And if vaccine clinics have limited hours they may find it difficult to schedule appointments that accord with their schedules.

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But first, people must feel comfortable choosing to be vaccinated and that could take some work.

“What people want to know is that it’s safe,” Benjamin said. "That requires a different kind of conversation that has not yet been held on a large scale basis.”

Not first in line

Recent studies suggest that Black people are less likely to trust the medical establishment.

Black adults are far more distrustful that a vaccine will be safe than white or Latino adults, research by the Societal Experts Action Network found. In November, only about 26% percent of Black adults surveyed said they would get a first-generation vaccine, compared with 55% of white adults surveyed and 54% of Hispanic adults. 

The Rev. David Greene Sr., senior pastor of Purpose of Life Ministries and president of Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, said he has heard many people saying that they don’t want to be at the front of the vaccine line. Compounding such attitudes, those who want to get the vaccine may find themselves facing long waits online or on the phone to make an appointment. Churches are now exploring how they might help their members register.

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Then, they may find it difficult to find an appointment in a place that’s convenient for them, where they trust the people who will be delivering the vaccine. For instance, he said, a church might offer the vaccine with retired nurses from the congregation vaccinating other members they know.

State health officials said Wednesday they will be taking a step to bring more vaccine into neighborhoods. Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box said her agency is “very strategically picking” federally qualified health centers to start receiving vaccine. In addition, she said, the state hopes to work with the federal pharmacy program, which will start distributing vaccine, to include pharmacies in diverse communities.

Another consideration, especially when vaccine eligibility extends to essential workers, some of whom are shift workers, is the hours the clinics are open, Benjamin said.

“I have often said if we can get fast food delivered 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we can get vaccination delivered,” he said.

Demographics may contribute

Demographics and the way Indiana has rolled out the vaccine to older populations, opening up eligibility by age, has likely played a role as well.

A higher proportion of older Hoosiers are white compared to demographics across all age groups. Until Monday, vaccines were only accessible to Hoosiers aged 70 and older. Statewide, about 92% of residents 75 and older are white, while just under 6% are Black. Across all ages, 78% of Hoosiers are white and 9% are Black. 

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Age may also impact whether people trust the vaccine, Greene said. The Tuskegee experiment, in which scientists withheld syphilis treatment for decades from the Black men who participated came to light in 1972, so it may loom larger in the minds of older Black Americans.

“Had it (the vaccine rollout) not been age-based, you might have gotten younger people who would have participated. That would have drove up the African-American number,” Greene said. “We need to be intentional about getting into the African-American community.”

To do that, Greene proposes holding a few mass vaccination clinics across the state that would be open to younger Black and Latino adults to drive up numbers and encourage others to also be vaccinated.

Promoting dialogue, vaccination

In Marion County, one of five counties in the state where Black people make up 10% or more of the population, about 3.7% of Black residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to about 10% of white residents.

The Indiana Region of the American Red Cross has brought together nearly 40 local organizations, including social service agencies, the Indianapolis Public Library, and others to reach out and increase awareness of the vaccine. The effort will focus on Black and Latino communities in Indianapolis’s Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood and the Westside as well as Gary’s Aetna neighborhood and Brownstown, Indiana.

“What we’re really focusing on is promoting dialogue,” said Chad Priest, CEO of Indiana American Red Cross, adding the goal is “to empower those agencies to simply talk about the vaccine with their constituents, simply giving people a voice.”

Many people who are eligible have signed up to get the vaccine. Others have decided that they will not get the vaccine no matter what. Then there are those in between.

The coalition’s forums, listening sessions, paid and social media campaigns, and more target that middle ground. The coalition has hosted forums with non-profit groups, faith-based leaders and those working with the immigrant community.

These conversations aim not to strongarm people into taking the vaccine but to provide them with the information they need to make their own choices, Priest said. In the end, he said, people in some populations may need more time to decide.       

“Those are people we want to make sure that have access to accurate information, that they don’t have disinformation, and that we’re honoring their decision-making process,” he said.  “My preference would be that everyone would get vaccinated immediately, but then again, I have a lot of preferences”.

And, no matter what steps are taken, many agree the state needs to be transparent about how many people of different demographic groups are getting vaccinated, Greene said. He’d like to see the state regularly report demographics of who is getting vaccinated.  

“Black people are not expecting to look up there and see that 300,000 Black people got vaccinated this week, however, they want to see progress,” he said. “Regardless of whether it’s a low number you can at least see people getting the vaccine.”

Contact IndyStar reporter Shari Rudavsky at shari.rudavsky@indystar.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter: @srudavsky.