Mary Barnett is one of about a dozen seniors who got a COVID-19 vaccine on a recent morning at Neighborhood Health, a clinic tucked into a sprawling public housing development on the south side of downtown Nashville, Tennessee.
“Is my time up, baby?” Barnett, 74, asked a nurse, after she’d waited 15 minutes to make sure she didn’t have an allergic reaction. Barnett, who uses a wheelchair, wasn’t in any particular rush. But her nephew was waiting outside, and he needed to get to work.
“Uber, I’m ready,” she joked, calling him on the phone. “Come on.”
Seniors of color like Barnett are lagging in COVID vaccinations, and the Biden administration plans to redirect doses to community clinics as soon as next week to help make up for the emerging disparity. Tennessee is one of a few states allocating vaccines to the network of clinics known as FQHCs, or federally qualified health centers.
In most of the states reporting racial and ethnic data, a KHN analysis found that White residents are getting vaccinated at more than twice the rate of Black residents. The gap is even larger in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Mississippi.
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“Equity is our North Star here,” Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith said at a briefing Tuesday, announcing vaccine shipments to the federally funded clinics. “This effort that focuses on direct allocation to community health centers really is about connecting with those hard-to-reach populations across the country.”
Nunez-Smith, who leads the administration’s health equity task force, said federally funded clinics—at least one in every state—will divvy up a million doses to start with, enough for 500,000 patients to get both doses. Eventually, 250 sites will participate.
The administration said roughly two-thirds of those served by FQHCs live at or below the poverty line, and more than half are racial or ethnic minorities.
Seeking people out
In Nashville, more than a third of eligible White residents have gotten their first shot, compared with a quarter of Hispanic residents and fewer than one-fifth of Black Nashvillians.
Unlike many local health departments, Neighborhood Health is not fending off crowds. They’re seeking people out. And it’s slow work compared with the mass vaccination campaigns by many public health workers and health systems.
Barnett lives in a public housing complex that gathered names of people interested in getting the vaccine. She was lucky to have her nephew’s help to get to her appointment; transportation is a challenge for many seniors. Some patients cancel at the last minute because a ride falls through. Often, the clinic offers to pick up patients.
Aside from logistical challenges, Barnett said, many of her neighbors are in no rush to get their dose anyway. “I tell them about taking it and they say, ‘Oh, no, I’m not going to take it.’ I say, ‘What’s the reasoning?’”
Usually, Barnett said, they don’t offer much of a reason. Her own motivation is having a sister with kidney disease who died of COVID in July.
“You either die with it or die without it,” her brother told her in support of getting the vaccine. “So if the shot helps, take the shot.”
Same story, next chapter
People of color have made up an outsized share of the cases and deaths from COVID nationwide. And, predictably, the same factors at play driving those trends are also complicating the vaccine rollout.
Rose Marie Becerra received an invitation to get the vaccine through Conexión Américas, a Tennessee immigrant advocacy nonprofit. A U.S. citizen originally from Colombia, she’s concerned about those without legal immigration status.
“The people who don’t have documents here are nervous about what could happen,” she said, adding that they worry providing personal information could result in immigration authorities tracking them down. Unauthorized immigrants are among those at the highest risk of COVID complications.
Even with 1,300 total community health centers around the country, Neighborhood Health CEO Brian Haile said his 11 clinics in the Nashville area can’t balance out a massive health system that tends to favor White patients with means.
Haile said everyone giving vaccines, from hospitals to health departments, must focus more on equity. “We know what’s required in terms of the labor-intensive effort to focus on the populations and vaccinate the populations at the highest risk.”
“What we have to do as a community is say, ‘We’re all going to make this happen.’”
This story originally appeared on Nashville Public Radio and was republished with permission through a partnership that includes NPR, Nashville Public Radio and KHN.