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US racial inequities in vaccination raise risk of new Covid hotspots and variants

Nina Lakhani in New York
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Jon Cherry/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

Latino and Black Americans continue to be vaccinated against Covid at the lowest rate despite political promises to redress inequalities, new analysis reveals.

Only 4.6% of Latinos and 5.7% of Black Americans have so far received a vaccine dose, compared with 11.3% of white Americans and 10.5% of Asian Americans, according to analysis by APM Research Lab shared exclusively with the Guardian.

Pacific Islanders have the highest inoculation rate, according to the limited data available, with 16.3% (about one in six) already having received at least one dose. Maryland has vaccinated 43.4% of this population – the highest reported proportion of any community in any state.

The second-highest rate is among Indigenous Americans, with 12.8% (one in eight) already having received at least one jab.

Despite some progress, the available state health data clearly suggests that access to the Covid vaccines – just like testing and economic aid – is disproportionately low for Latino and Black Americans, the two largest minority communities in the US.

The consequences of the inequitable vaccine rollout are bad for public health as pockets of high transmission could set back efforts to control the pandemic, according to Dr Kathleen Page, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“It’s not just about equity; even if we want to be selfish, it doesn’t make sense as we’ll continue to see high transmission hotspots across the country and that’s where new variants will emerge.”

Registered nurse gives Gustavo Hernandez the first dose of coronavirus vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in the Bronx borough of New York on 31 January.
A nurse gives Gustavo Hernandez the first dose of coronavirus vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in the Bronx borough of New York on 31 January. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

Page added: “The inequity we see is not just about vaccine hesitancy – that’s just an excuse to blame the victims. It’s about very real obstacles and our broad-stroke approach to priority groups, which means high-risk people in Latino and Black communities don’t meet the criteria.” The white population is significantly older than other ethnic groups, and the elderly have been prioritized by every state. But deaths in the Latino population are concentrated among working-age groups.

Overall, new Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths are falling, but more than half a million Americans have already died, new variants are emerging and localized outbreaks are still occurring across the country.

The pace of vaccine distribution has picked up since Joe Biden took office, and about 1.6m doses now being administered every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Related: Latino and Black Americans see lowest Covid vaccination rates, new data shows

The data remains patchy, but overall, Pennsylvania is one of the worst-performing states, having vaccinated only 1.2% of Latino and 1.6% of Black residents. The vaccination rate for white Pennsylvanians is almost half the national average.

In Georgia, only 5.8% of Black Americans and 1.7% of Latinos have received at least one dose of the vaccination compared with almost 13.4% of white residents. In California, 12.5% of Asian Americans and 12.7% of white Americans have received a shot compared with 5.7% of Latino and 7.4% of Black Americans.

For Indigenous peoples, the standout states are Virginia, where healthcare workers have given almost 37% of Native people at least one dose, and Alaska, with 32%. This compares with only 2.2% in Mississippi.

News of the relatively fast vaccination rollout in Indian Country comes shortly after the Guardian revealed that indigenous Americans are dying from Covid faster than any other community in the US. Recent polling suggests vaccine hesitancy is low among American Indians and Alaskan Natives compared with other groups.

Page’s targeted approach to vaccinations would increase outreach efforts in localized hotspots. Here, the criteria currently being used to prioritize eligibility would be relaxed in order to include high-risk people, such as those living in overcrowded housing, those without email access, those who speak limited English and people with undiagnosed medical conditions like diabetes, currently excluded – and their families.

So far, only 27 states and the District of Columbia have published some comparable data about the number and share of their racial and ethnic communities who have received one or both vaccine doses. New York, Illinois, New Mexico, Minnesota and Washington are among the states that have not released ethnicity data, making it impossible to hold officials to account.