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How Seattle Is Attempting To Ensure Racial Equity In Access To COVID-19 Vaccines

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. vaccine rollout has only underscored the inequities seen throughout the pandemic. Communities of color are getting less access to the vaccine, even though these groups are far more likely to die from COVID. Many cities, many states are now trying to address this problem. Will Stone has this report on what they're doing in Seattle.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: When this hockey arena was chosen for a mass vaccination site, Leon Richardson knew they'd hear lots of languages in this neighborhood south of Seattle.

LEON RICHARDSON: Mandarin and Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish.

STONE: Richardson works for Public Health - Seattle, King County.

RICHARDSON: We really had to leverage our staff on-site that's bilingual, which is just indicative of all the different cultures and populations that we're reaching.

STONE: It's one of two mass vaccination sites open this week with the goal of reaching some of Western Washington's most diverse communities. Dr. Mark Del Beccaro is with the health department.

MARK DEL BECCARO: They have the highest infection rate, a disproportionate death rate and disproportionately poor access to health care.

STONE: So they put the vaccine site in this part of town to reduce barriers to getting the shot. Public Health is also enlisting agencies like Neighborhood House, which serves thousands of low-income seniors in the Seattle area.

MESTEFAKIR KASSA: My name is Mestefakir. I am care coordinator of Neighborhood House and originally from Ethiopia.

STONE: Mestefakir manages the care for seniors, like Haeos Hadera, who initially struggled to navigate the sign-up process.

HAEOS HADERA: (Non-English language spoken).

KASSA: But for myself, it was difficult to get the vaccine. I don't know where to go or where to get it.

STONE: She was able to help Hadera get a shot at a nearby pop-up clinic. Janice Deguchi, executive director of Neighborhood House, says their clients were also given early access to sign up for the mass vaccine site.

JANICE DEGUCHI: That would definitely be an example of what worked. More of that would be great.

STONE: She says doses should go directly to primary care doctors in non-white communities. And the state needs a centralized waiting list so when vaccine is available, people aren't overlooked.

DEGUCHI: Before we just go to the next round, which is going to be kind of a mad dash, that we ensure that there is equity and that those vulnerable populations have access.

STONE: The data from the Seattle area does show that overall, communities of color are getting vaccinated at lower rates than whites. Public health director Patty Hayes says in part, that reflects the lack of diversity in the health care workforce, the first group to get vaccinated. But early data from their mass vaccine sites show promise. They're twice as effective at getting Black residents vaccinated.

PATTY HAYES: I can look at our data. And I'm really pleased with where it's going right now. We're being transparent as to where we need to look and emphasize. So we always can do better.

STONE: At least Seattle has this data. The CDC says for about half of Americans who've been vaccinated, there is no race and ethnicity data. What does exist show just about 5% of doses have gone to Black Americans and around 11% to Latinos.

JOIA CREAR-PERRY: If we could at least just get the data, that gives us a starting point.

STONE: Dr. Joia Crear-Perry is with the We Must Count Coalition, which has pushed for race and ethnicity data since the start of the pandemic.

CREAR-PERRY: Moving around blindly, trying to make decisions around where to send vaccines without having information, that's what kills communities who are not centered.

STONE: Perry says unless there's pressure on states to collect this information, it won't happen. The Biden administration is now calling on states to get more consistent data. Dr. Helene Gayle led a National Academies of Medicine committee on vaccine equity.

HELENE GAYLE: Sometimes, in the rush to get as many people vaccinated, we're not thinking about making sure that we're focusing on the people who are at greatest risk.

STONE: But Gayle says there's still plenty of time for a coordinated national strategy to turn this around. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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