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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

White Michigan residents get COVID vaccine at twice rate of African Americans

drive-through COVID vaccine clinic
Three-person medical teams great patients at a drive-through COVID vaccine clinic in Detroit. State records show the majority African-American city has one of the lower residential vaccination rates in the state. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

White residents in Michigan are twice as likely to have received the coronavirus vaccine as Black residents, according to new data released Tuesday by the state.

The data, however, has substantial gaps — the race is unknown for over 40 percent of vaccine recipients.

So far, 8 percent of whites residents have received at least the first of two required doses, compared to 4 percent of Black residents, the data shows.

 

While the data is limited and far from ideal, the numbers add to growing alarm about equity issues in the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine. It’s an issue in Michigan and nationwide, as manufacturers ramp up efforts to produce vaccines in a rollout that has left many frustrated.

“Ensuring those who are most vulnerable are protected by the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is a high priority for Michigan,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health for the state, said in a press release. 

Michigan released the data on Tuesday, following criticism from health officials that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wasn’t making public racial data of vaccine recipients, even though she vowed to make racial equity a cornerstone of the state’s pandemic response.

Since the pandemic began last March, Black residents have comprised 3,420 of the 15,396 COVID-19 deaths in Michigan, or 22 percent, despite making up about 14 percent of the state population.

“We will use this data to continue to drive our strategy towards making sure everyone has equitable access to the vaccines,” Khaldun said.

Whitmer set up a task force to reduce health disparities in COVID-19. One member, Dr. Debra Furr-Holden, criticized the high rate of “unknown” recipients by race as “disgusting.”

Not knowing who is getting the vaccine makes it impossible to ensure equitable access, said Furr-Holden, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at Michigan State University who has criticized the state’s preparedness to collect racial data.

“Data disparities are an unnecessary evil,” she said. “We should have mandated this. We all knew the vaccine was coming. This isn’t a surprise."

There are multiple reasons for the disparities, from lack of access to the vaccines to a reluctance among some African Americans and other minority communities who view the vaccines with suspicion because of past wrongs in public health, including racist policies and unethical clinical experiments that harmed the Black community.

Furr-Holden, however, said reluctance is not now an issue because there are waiting lists for the vaccine in every county.

 

Despite the limits of the data, there have been other indications of disparate administration of the vaccine.

Detroit and Genesee County, which includes Flint, have some of the highest populations of African Americans in Michigan, yet have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state.

It’s a situation unfolding nationwide. In Ohio, for instance, 6 percent of Black residents have gotten the first dose of the state’s 1.5 million vaccinations despite making up 12 percent of the population, according to KFF, a health policy nonprofit once known as the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

The disparities are similar in 34 states that have released detailed racial data, said Samantha Artiga, vice president of racial equity for KFF. 

She added that several states also have a high percentage of “unknown” racial demographics — six of the 34 states that report racial data have an “unknown” percentage above 30 percent.

Artiga said the data gaps “limit the ability to interpret the data and draw strong conclusions. However, the largely consistent pattern we see across states in the data that are available raise concerns about disparities, especially when considered along with anecdotal reports of potential access barriers that may disproportionately affect people of color and underserved areas,” she said.

Michigan and local officials have been working on assuaging fears about the vaccines with public health campaigns touting their safety, partnering with leaders in minority communities.

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Whitmer last year pledged to make racial equity a priority in her fight against COVID, and Khaldun has repeatedly talked of the need to address health disparities, including those exacerbated by the pandemic.

Equity, in fact, is central to the state’s vaccination strategy, which includes increasing supplies to communities that were hard hit by the coronavirus, have higher rates of poverty or challenges with public transportation and Internet access.

Data not only allows the state to track its progress, it can guide outreach efforts, experts have told Bridge.

But Michigan has struggled to connect race data to the Michigan Care Improvement Registry, or MCIR, the state’s long-time database for tracking immunizations in the state. 

Until now, MCIR didn’t have data fields that allowed users — doctors and public health personnel — to enter race information. That left the state stitching together MCIR with health records from a variety of hospitals, doctors offices and other providers, when they could find it.

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