NOEL KING, HOST:
An NPR analysis looked at COVID-19 vaccination sites in several large cities across the southern United States and found that those sites are more likely to be located in neighborhoods that have a higher percentage of white residents than the median neighborhood in the county. Now, what that means is that it's harder for many Black and Hispanic people to find a place to get vaccinated than it is for white people. We're going to talk more about these findings with the team that did the reporting. Ashley Lopez is a reporter with member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Shalina Chatlani is with member station WWNO in New Orleans. She's the health care reporter for the NPR Gulf States Newsroom. And Sean McMinn is a data editor at NPR. Good morning, everyone.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.
SEAN MCMINN, BYLINE: Good morning.
SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: Hey.
KING: Sean, I want to begin with you. You went looking for trends that were visible in the early stages of the vaccine rollout. And what trends did you find?
MCMINN: That's right. We are in the early stages. It is just getting off the ground. But we wanted to know where vaccination sites are located. So we went to all the states where we could find the addresses of vaccination sites. There were about 15 of these that have them online. My colleagues and I looked at the percentage of non-Hispanic white residents in the census tracts of those states. It's basically a neighborhood. Then we mapped where the vaccine sites were in those census tracts. We identified counties where there were more vaccine sites in places that had a higher percentage of white residents. So when we say it's a whiter neighborhood, what we really mean is that it's one that has a higher percentage of white residents compared to the county's median census track. Now, we saw this happening over and over again in the Gulf Coast and in Texas. So I got in touch with Shalina and Ashley to see if what they saw on the ground was matching what we saw in the data.
KING: Now, Shalina, you have been looking all across the South. Tell me about some of the specific places you looked and what you found.
CHATLANI: So I looked into three states specifically - Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. And one of the places I saw the most disparity was in Baton Rouge in Louisiana. We looked into all of the vaccination sites that were there. And 19 out of 25 are located in the whiter and wealthier neighborhoods. That's also where most medical facilities are. So when I went to the northern part of the parish, which is a predominantly Black and lower-income community, the seniors I interviewed there said there weren't many convenient places for them to get vaccinated. These disparities in health care access have existed for a long time in many of the cities I looked at. I saw a similar issue next door in Jackson, Miss. There's only one vaccination site in Hinds County, which is over 70% Black. But that site is located in the metropolitan downtown Jackson area, which is where most medical centers are located. It's a predominantly white area, and it's a 30-minute drive away from the more rural part of the county, where more Black residents live.
KING: OK. And then, Ashley, you also covering a massive area, which is the state of Texas. Tell me about what you found in Texas.
LOPEZ: Yeah, we have the same structural problems here in Texas. For example, I live in Austin. And here, advocates have been concerned that the wealthier and whiter parts of town, which are on the west side, have more vaccine sites because they have more pharmacies and medical practices. I also looked right outside of Austin. East of us, there's this small rural county called Bastrop County. And in that county, almost all the vaccine providers are in the main city, which is also called Bastrop. Basically, there's one cluster of providers there along the main highway and then hardly any other sites in the county. And this affects an immigrant community that's a 30-minute drive from the city of Bastrop. People there are afraid of driving into the city for basically anything. They've had run-ins with local law enforcement over small things in the past that have resulted in deportations, which has really scared the community. So placement of vaccine sites really, really matters there.
KING: So, Sean, Shalina and Ashley were looking in the southern part of the United States. Is what's going on there happening in the rest of the country?
MCMINN: Unfortunately, there's no way to know for sure.
MCMINN: The CDC is collecting data on where the vaccine doses are being distributed, but they have so far decided not to release that to the public. But what we do have an idea of is where the existing health infrastructure is. Think about places like clinics and hospitals. And a group of researchers at the West Health Policy Center and the University of Pittsburgh found that in hundreds of counties across the country, Black Americans were more likely than white Americans to live far away, 10 miles in a rural area and 1 mile in an urban area from a potential vaccination center.
KING: A particularly critical question for public health, then, would be, are Black and Hispanic Americans not getting vaccinated because the vaccine sites are harder for them to reach? Shalina, what did you find when you looked at the numbers?
CHATLANI: Yeah, so in the places that I looked into, Black people are being vaccinated less than their share of the population. Take Mississippi, where as of Wednesday, only 17% of residents who got the shot were Black, even though they make up about 38% of the population. Now, some public health officials point to vaccine hesitancy, which is this fear of getting the vaccine. That is an issue that we're seeing pop up in the South, where there's a long history of institutional racism. But there's also this issue of access. You can look at a map and see that there are far fewer sites in areas with predominantly Black populations.
KING: OK, so a cascade of problems. Ashley, who is getting the vaccine in Texas?
LOPEZ: It's hard to know what's going on because data is pretty spotty in Texas. If you look at the state's demographic data, about 45% of people who have been vaccinated are reported as an unknown race. It's actually the biggest category they have right now, and that's just not super helpful.
MCMINN: And, Noel, this is the case nationwide. The CDC put out a report this week saying that they don't know the race of about half the people who have been vaccinated in the United States. But they did say that among those they do know, Black Americans are being vaccinated at a lower rate. To give you an idea, roughly 1 out of every 20 people who have been vaccinated has been Black. If they were receiving vaccinations equally relative to their share of the population, it would be more than double that.
KING: OK, so the CDC is aware of this, which makes me wonder, are there any commitments from public health officials to get vaccines into neighborhoods where people of color live?
LOPEZ: Yeah, I'm seeing a commitment from federal and local leaders on this. In Texas, county health officials have said they are committed to getting vaccines to the hardest-hit communities. And the Biden administration has said they want to make sure immigrants, regardless of legal status, have access to the vaccine. And FEMA is expected to create pop-up vaccination sites in underserved communities.
KING: Shalina, what do you see?
CHATLANI: Officials in Louisiana tell me that they're going to use National Guard teams to go into underserved areas to do community vaccination events. But a more common solution that I've been hearing is creating partnerships with nonprofits and health clinics that already have connections in the community. But, of course, you know, doing those mass vaccination events depends on having enough vaccine. So that'll be even more important in the upcoming phases.
KING: Ashley, Shalina and Sean, thank you so much for your reporting. We appreciate it.
LOPEZ: Thank you.
MCMINN: Thank you, Noel.
KING: Ashley Lopez is with member station KUT in Austin. Shalina Chatlani is with the NPR Gulf States Newsroom. And Sean McMinn is a data editor at NPR.
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