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Kent County Commissioner highlights racial disparity in vaccine distribution

Posted at 11:24 PM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-24 23:24:02-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Statewide data is revealing widespread disparity in who is getting the vaccine, with current numbers showing minorities are receiving the vaccine at an alarmingly low rate.

The issue was addressed in the a press conference held by Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Governer Garlin Gilchrist.

"It's clear we need to continue our efforts to get more communities of color vaccinated and close the gap in the data that is being reported," said Lt. Gov. Gilchrist, who formed the Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities at the start of the pandemic due to the number of deaths in the African American and Latino communities.

Current statewide numbers show that just 3.7% of Michigan's first dose vaccines went to black residents with roughly 9% for residents of other races. Meanwhile, their white counterparts accounted for 42% of first doses that were distributed. Spectrum Health, for instance, reports that just 5% of those who have received the vaccine through the organization are African American or Latino. Other hospital systems in West Michigan could not provide additional data for further demographic breakdowns.

The numbers show a stark difference, though Lt. Gov. spoke on how 45% of those who got the vaccine did not identify a race through their medical documents, meaning the state does not have a perfect picture about the demographics at play within the distribution process.

"That means that we do not know the race of almost one million who have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, but we do need to address the data problem so that we can understand the shape of this problem. That’s why our team has created a new direct data tool that is now live," said. Lt. Gov. Gilchrist, who encouraged medical providers to enter the data they have accessible into the system through this newly-launched tool.

In Kent County, Commissioner Robert Womack echoed similar sentiments about distribution in his constituency, which is largely made up of a minority population.

"I am concerned about the death of people because I've lost people close to me, locally and nationwide," said Womack, who has been using his radio platform in the Grand Rapids area to share the message that the vaccine is safe and effective to us.

The distrust in the African American community runs deep, though, with medical professionals in the past century experimenting on black patients. Commissioner Womack says those who are hesistant to receive the vaccine reference events like the Tuskegee Experiment, when black men were used a test subjects to learn the long-term impact syphilis can have on the human body.

"That’s very damaging to the trust factors of African Americans and other minorities right here in America, not to mention eugenics and other things that scientists have supported in the past," said Commissioner Womack. "I can't blame people for being a little edgy about it, but it is a new day. It is a new day, and we got to work together and overcome this pandemic."

Womack is asking that more outreach be done within the Kent County area by non-profits and other medical organizations working on distributing the vaccine, calling for "more boots on the ground."

"We need to willing to, for lack of a better word, get our hands a little dirty... Or we’re going to lose a lot of people."

STATEMENTS MADE BY LOCAL HEALTH DEPARTMENTS REGARDING RACIAL DISPARITIES

The following statement was provided by Spectrum Health when asked about their breakdown on demographics:

"At Spectrum Health we are committed to providing access to the COVID-19 vaccine to all members of our community. Ending the pandemic will require everyone to be protected from the virus, not just certain groups. While delay in vaccine supplies have limited our ability to provide vaccine to our entire community, we are especially concerned about vaccination rates among the Black and LatinX communities. To date, of all the community vaccinations we have provided, just over 5% have gone to these communities. Those numbers are lower than the populations of those groups within our communities.

To make the vaccine more accessible, Spectrum Health has taken steps to reach these communities. Working with Kent County, Mercy Health and Vaccinate West Michigan, we made sure the West Michigan Vaccine Clinic, located at DeVos Place, was easily accessible and on public transportation routes. Spectrum Health has held several community-based clinics across our health system, including the Wyoming Senior Center [healthbeat.spectrumhealth.org] and New Hope Baptist Church [healthbeat.spectrumhealth.org] in Grand Rapids. We have also launched a vaccine health series [vimeo.com] of discussions addressing the questions and concerns of these groups that was broadcast on social media. Kent County, Spectrum Health and Mercy Health hosted a media tour at DeVos Place for LatinX media outlets to share information about the clinic and answer questions most relevant to this community. See Facebook Live recording [fb.watch].

We understand the urgency of reaching all members of our community with the vaccine as soon as possible and will continue outreach efforts to increase vaccination rates among these populations."

Mercy Health also provided a statement, but could not provide any additional numbers or data:

"Mercy Health continues to review available race and ethnicity data of patients receiving their COVID-19 vaccine. There is wide variation based on the site of vaccine delivery and unfortunately, many patients do not identify their race or ethnicity when registering. We continue to work with our local health departments to identify and offer vaccine to communities who might have disparate access to it."