‘Unacceptable’ — Van Hollen, local leaders seek to change COVID-19 vaccine inequities

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen said that despite the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color, Black people and Latinos are far behind white people in the number of people who have received the potentially lifesaving vaccines.

Maryland is ranked 45th out of 50 states in overall distribution of vaccines. While that is bad enough, Van Hollen said, what makes matters worse is that vaccines aren’t reaching people who need them most.

“White Marylanders are receiving the vaccine at a rate of two times what members of the Black community in Maryland are receiving,” Van Hollen, D-Md., said during a virtual roundtable Wednesday. “And if you look at the Latino community, they’ve received about 4% of Maryland’s vaccines, when they represent about 11% of the overall population.”

“These numbers are troubling, and they need to change,” Van Hollen said. “Forty-fifth out of 50 is unacceptable for the state of Maryland.”

Several community leaders told Van Hollen some of the state’s plans and messaging surrounding distribution of the three vaccines currently approved for emergency use, during the pandemic have been tone-deaf to inequities that communities of color have dealt with for decades.

“African-Americans are told we have the highest co-morbidities, in relation to COVID-19, and then there’s a failure to prioritize testing, vaccination education and vaccination access to our endangered communities,” said Bishop Donte Hickman, pastor at Southern Baptist Church, in Baltimore.

Hickman said the state’s vaccination plans make it difficult for poor community members to safely navigate the logistics of getting a shot: “People who are unemployed and underemployed are now being told to come downtown for vaccination. And what’s worse, they’re being told to send an email to determine their eligibility and register despite the digital divide, and lack of broadband width and capacity.”

Dr. Sonya Bruton, CEO and president of CCI Health & Wellness Services, in Montgomery County, said despite President Joe Biden’s backing of community vaccination centers in underserved communities, state laws continue to hamstring getting vaccines into arms.

“We have access [to doses of vaccine]; however, we can’t give it to people who need it,” said Bruton. “Of our 33,000 patients, only 5% are in the category that we’re currently allowed to vaccinate, of 65 and up — we broker primarily in the age group of 18 to 64.”

Bruton told Van Hollen that regardless of whether her agency receives doses from the state or federal government, they can only administer to the currently eligible group — 1c.

“The way both programs operate now, when we get our vaccines from the state or if we order direct from the federal government, they are to be used in concert with the rules and regulations of the state,” she said.

Gabriela Lemus, executive director of Maryland Latinos Unidos, said her community also is being underserved.

“The community is clearly feeling the impact of benign neglect when it comes to the spread of the disease and access to services,” she said.

While the emergency use authorization of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which only requires one dose, could lessen some challenges to vaccination, some have been critical of its usage in poor communities, because initial reports said it was not as effective in preventing disease as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

More recently, local and national public health leaders, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have expressed confidence in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine’s ability to prevent serious illness and death.

“It was troubling,” agreed Hickman. “But I realized it is a demand-and-supply issue. And when you are in the desert, Dasani water works just as good as Evian.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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