Michigan isn’t sure who’s getting the COVID vaccine. That’s a big problem
In less than a month, Michigan has gone from having one of the worst coronavirus vaccination rates to one of the best, with over 1 million doses administered.
But who’s getting the doses?
New data shows those 65 and older comprise over half of all vaccines in the last two weeks, up from 10 percent of vaccines in the first three weeks when the focus of innoculations was on health care workers.
That makes sense, as those 65 and older account for more than 90 percent of Michigan’s COVID-19 deaths.
Other information about recipients, though, is in short supply.
Unlike many states, Michigan public health officials have not released data on racial composition of those getting vaccinated. Advocates say it’s important to do so because minorities have been hit harder by the coronavirus.
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Since the pandemic began, African Americans in Michigan have comprised nearly 23 percent (3,332) of the 14,672 confirmed COVID-19 deaths despite making up just 14 percent of the state population.
“Having data to understand the vaccine rollout (helps to ensure) equitable access to the vaccine,” said Samantha Artiga, vice president of racial equity for KFF (formerly the Kaiser Family Foundation), a health policy nonprofit.
Data in other states are showing that African Americans are not getting vaccinated at the same rates, according to KFF:
- In Ohio, African Americans have received 5 percent of the state’s vaccine despite comprising 12 percent of the population.
- In Indiana, African Americans have gotten 4 percent of vaccines; they make up 9 percent of the population.
- In Florida, 17 percent of vaccines have gone to Hispanic residents, who comprise 27 percent of the state population.
In Michigan, there are only hints of disparities.
Detroit, where African Americans comprise nearly 80 percent of the population, has one of the lowest rates of vaccination in the state: 3 percent of the population has received a vaccine, compared to 8 percent statewide.
In Genesee County, home to Flint, which is 54 percent African American, just under 6 percent have received the vaccine.
The numbers have caused some, including Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, to question publicly if the vaccines are being distributed equitably.
Without better data on recipients of the vaccine, health officials say they can’t begin addressing any barriers, such as access to the Internet or transportation or reluctance to take the vaccine altogether.
Concerns over potential racial disparities in vaccinations have risen to the White House and President Biden’s COVID-19 equity task force.
“We must address these insufficient data points as an urgent priority,” said its chairwoman Marcella Nunez-Smith, an associate dean for Health Equity Research at Yale School of Medicine, according to the Washington Post. “I’m worried about how behind we are. So, let me be clear: We cannot ensure an equitable vaccination program without data to guide us.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Michigan was one of the states that released the least information about coronavirus cases and deaths, Bridge Michigan reported.
It was, however, one of the first to release racial data, which came after Bridge reported that African-American communities were getting hit hard.
Michigan health officials told Bridge Michigan they have collected race and ethnic data about vaccinations but have not publicly released it.
When that data is released, it will mirror nationwide disparities, with minority communities having lower vaccination rates, officials said.
To address those disparities, the state will allocate additional vaccine doses to communities with disadvantaged populations, said Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
The state has also launched a $1.5 million eduction campaign about the vaccine's safety and effectiveness. Designed after working with groups of Black, Hispanic, Arab and white residents, the campaign will be broadcast on TV, radio, through social media and YouTube, as well as in minority publications, Sutfin said.
Racial data isn’t the only data people want. As residents statewide scramble for appointments, many wonder if the vaccine is going to those currently considered the highest priority — those 65 and older and some front-line essential workers like teachers and law enforcement officers.
Michigan has published statewide aggregate data on age and gender, but began breaking it down on the county level starting Tuesday.
But there is little else known about who is getting vaccines, either by race, occupation or which priority group they are in.
Some people would like more information about the vaccine, a coveted — and limited — resource across the country as they hear reports of “line jumpers” who have received shots even if they aren’t in priority groups.
In Livingston County, Bob Potocki, 72, has unsuccessfully worked the Internet and the phone trying to get the vaccine for him and his wife.
Leery that others have wrongly jumped ahead of him, he’s gone so far as to seek vaccine data from the county with a Freedom of Information Act request.
“My goal is to make sure everybody knows the numbers, it’s fair and the distribution is not being shortcut (by anyone),” he said.
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