Black and Hispanic Americans are dying from COVID at nearly three times the rate of white Americans, yet based on preliminary data, they’re getting vaccinated at dramatically lower rates. That should alarm us all.
These are the folks most likely to be working in crowded conditions, up close with this virus. We won’t bend the curve if we’re inoculating mostly “middle-class white people,” Dr. Anthony Fauci warned on Wednesday. “You really want to get it to the people who are really the most vulnerable.”
Yet that’s not what’s happening, including in New Jersey. So far, only 8 percent of those vaccinated have been confirmed as Black or Hispanic, even though they make up about 35 percent of the population.
We’re seeing all the usual barriers reflected in this shortfall: Distrust of the government and medical establishment, practical restraints like work and lack of computer access — and the failure of the state to respond aggressively. What’s clear is that the disparity is unacceptable, and the need to address it is urgent.
A recent poll found 43 percent of Black people and 37 percent of Hispanics say they will “wait and see” to get vaccinated, compared to 26 percent of whites. It only underscores the need for a vigorous grassroots campaign to get this into arms; Black and brown arms.
“These are people that, if they don’t get the vaccinations, they end up with an empty chair at their table,” says Rev. David Jefferson, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark.
A history of well-earned medical mistrust, including the Tuskegee study that horrifically abused Black men with Syphilis, contributes to vaccine hesitancy. Hispanic people are less likely to be insured, often face language barriers or in some cases are fearful because of their immigration status.
But the pastors we spoke with say their congregants are ready to roll up their sleeves. Access is the immediate problem. Not everyone can spend their day tapping on a computer, competing to get in line.
Here are three things that experts suggest would help. First, work with community leaders to sign up as many people as possible, then give them the vaccine. Tell everyone to show up at church, where a mobile vaccination van will be parked outside. Second, expand the hours at vaccination sites to include more evenings and weekends. And finally, get the word out with a targeted public health campaign.
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh says he’s working the phones to get Black leaders and celebrities involved. “This is something we’re doing on our own,” he said. “We can’t wait for anybody. We have to act.”
The state has some promising ideas, including establishing mobile units, enlisting Black doctors to give the shots, and going door-to-door to register people. The Rev. Charles Boyer was with the governor when he visited the Morristown supersite, and watched as the eldest member of his congregation was vaccinated last Friday.
But scarcity of supply remains a huge problem. Rev. Jefferson, who has a lawsuit against the state on a separate matter, is offering to get this out into the community. He has a congregation of more than 7,000, with 10 churches under his umbrella, and a partnership with St. James Medical Center to run his own testing site. Now he wants to use it to vaccinate. Except he hasn’t gotten any doses from the state.
“I am very, very disappointed,” he told us on Thursday. “My fear is, even when they become available, other people are going to get them.”
On Friday night, after we inquired, the governor’s office told Jefferson that they’d get him some vaccines, he said. Great. Let’s make sure, in the scramble, that no one gets shut out.