COVID-19 Vaccination Sites More Common In Whiter Neighborhoods, NPR Finds : Consider This from NPR Using data from several states that have published their own maps and lists of where vaccination sites are located, NPR identified disparities in the locations of COVID-19 vaccination sites in major cities across the Southern U.S. — with most sites placed in whiter neighborhoods.

KUT's Ashley Lopez, Shalina Chatlani of NPR's Gulf States Newsroom, and NPR's Sean McMinn explain their findings. Read more here.

Also in this episode: how one county in Washington state is trying to make vaccine distribution more equitable. Will Stone reports.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Who's Getting Vaccinated And Who Isn't: NPR Analysis Finds Stark Racial Divide

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You can walk around the neighborhoods of Kent, Wash. - that's south of Seattle - and hear a lot of different languages.

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LEON RICHARDSON: Mandarin and Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish.

CORNISH: Leon Richardson is with the county health department. He says they thought about the diversity in the area when they opened a mass vaccination site at a local hockey arena this month.

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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.

CORNISH: The county chose this site specifically to reach those at highest risk of COVID-19 and people who might have a hard time getting a vaccine through what they call traditional health care systems. They're trying to change the story about who has access to a vaccine. Data from the Seattle area show that overall, communities of color are getting vaccinated at lower rates than whites. As for how that compares to nationwide data, turns out we don't really know.

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

CORNISH: Dr. Joia Crear-Perry is with a group called the We Must Count Coalition, which is pushing for states and the federal government to collect more data on race and ethnicity for vaccine rollouts. The CDC only has race or ethnicity data for about half of Americans who've been vaccinated. What does exist show Black and Latino people are way underrepresented.

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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.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - we may not know everything about who's being vaccinated, but we know a lot about where vaccination sites are, and a new NPR analysis of those sites reveals stark differences in who has easy access to a shot and who doesn't. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Monday, February 8.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Getting vaccine doses to people who need them the most requires a lot of trust.

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RAUL RUIZ: I am the son of farmworkers that grew up in the community, and I have spent a lot of time out in the fields working as a physician, public health promoter. I am a messenger that they trust.

CORNISH: That's Congressman Raul Ruiz of California, who spoke to NPR recently.

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RUIZ: We also need the local physicians, and we need the priests and pastors and faith-based leaders to go out and to communicate this.

CORNISH: Ruiz is chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. That group has been urging state leaders to prioritize food and agriculture workers for vaccination. Latinos make up more than a third of the workforce in those industries but nearly three-quarters of confirmed coronavirus cases. Ruiz said the people in his district need more vaccine doses and more access, but he's also worried about misinformation.

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RUIZ: They hear that the vaccine is going to make them sick with COVID. There are concerns about the cost. Some of the undocumenteds are concerned about whether or not they need to register and put their, you know, name somewhere. And so the important part is that the messenger has to be someone who's trusted.

CORNISH: Working with trusted messengers is what they're doing at that Kings County (ph) Health Department in Seattle, where some local aid groups were given early access to sign up for the mass vaccination site.

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

CORNISH: Janice Deguchi is the executive director of Neighborhood House. They work with low-income seniors in the Seattle area. She says vaccine doses should go directly to primary care doctors in non-white communities. And the state needs a centralized waiting list.

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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.

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JEFF ZIENTS: And across the board, as you know, equity is foundational to everything we do.

CORNISH: White House COVID coordinator Jeff Zients, in a call with reporters this month, laid out the Biden administration's plans to get more vaccines to hard-hit communities. This week, they'll begin to deliver more doses to local pharmacies, especially ones that serve non-white communities in hard-to-reach areas. The administration is also rolling out mobile vaccine units with that same goal and working to stand up more mass vaccination sites in arenas and stadiums with help from the National Guard.

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ZIENTS: We're doing all we possibly can with the resources we have, and we will continue to do so. The faster Congress acts, the faster we can scale vaccination sites, mobile units. We can increase testing.

CORNISH: Zients and other administration officials have repeatedly said that more action will be possible when Congress approves more money. Right now, Democrats are trying to do that using a process called budget reconciliation, but that's expected to take weeks.

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ZIENTS: So given this pandemic, it's important that Congress act as fast as possible so we can scale our efforts and fight the pandemic as efficiently and effectively as possible.

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CORNISH: We mentioned that data on who is being vaccinated is far from complete, so the NPR investigations team recently set out to fill in some of the blanks. What they found by analyzing vaccination sites in several large cities across the Southern U.S. is that you're far more likely to live near a vaccination location if you're white. A team of reporters and editors worked together on this story. They include Ashley Lopez in Austin, Texas, Shalina Chatlani in New Orleans and Sean McMinn in Washington, D.C. The three of them spoke to NPR's Noel King.

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NOEL 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?

SEAN 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.

SHALINA 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.

ASHLEY 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.

KING: OK.

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 one 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 rates 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 vaccines, so that'll be even more important in the upcoming phases.

CORNISH: That was Shalina Chatlani. She's a health care reporter for the NPR Gulf States newsroom. You also heard Ashley Lopez, a reporter with member station KUT in Austin, Texas, and Sean McMinn, a data editor here at NPR. The reporting you heard earlier in this episode from Seattle - well, that came from Will Stone.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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