The racial divide: Channel 2 investigates disparities in getting the COVID-19 vaccine

ATLANTA — Throughout the pandemic, we’ve found health care equity makes a difference between who survives COVID-19 and who suffers the most.

Health care experts are still trying to figure out vaccine access disparities in the most vulnerable groups and we’re still finding those disparities along racial lines.

We found what’s going right in the race to vaccinate Georgians when a Channel 2 crew stepped inside the Good Samaritan Health Center in February.

Located on Atlanta’s Westside, it’s situated in proximity to groups that represent some of COVID’s most vulnerable populations: older, poorer, Black and Brown and uninsured.

An early narrative was that parts of this population in particular would be more hesitant to accept the vaccine. We didn’t find that.

“In terms of filling vaccine spots, we really haven’t had any difficulty,” said Breanna Lathrop the Chief Operations Officer at Good Samaritan Health Center.

“I was ready. So, it’s just a matter of finding a place to do it,” said Helen B. Massey who received her second dose of the vaccine at Good Samaritan.

We found enthusiastic, older African American patients coming in for the second doses ready for the other side of the pandemic.

MORE 2 INVESTIGATES STORIES:

“I’m a world traveler. I want to go to Italy. I want to go back to Italy,” said Chamella Scott, who also received her second dose of the vaccine.

But they all shared one thing in common that day. They’d come to Atlanta from other cities. It was access by ease of Good Samaritan’s appointment system that puts you in touch with a live operator, by their own ability to drive a distance.

“My sisters referred me to this location,” said Tony Fuller who got his second dose of the vaccine.

They got help from friends, family and civic groups when online booking was tough.

“Oh, my goodness. It was so terrible. I’d put my name on every Publix, CVS list that you could imagine,” said Ms. Scott.

Since our visit, Georgia has expanded eligibility, opening vaccinations to anyone older than 16-years-old in the state and appointments are easier to come by.

But health, state and local leaders are still figuring out how to get vaccines to people who simply cannot get to them.

In the case of what’s now a federal mass vaccination site at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, space and proximity to public transportation is a win. We’ve seen mass drive-thru sites throughout the state and mobile units deploy in metro Atlanta.

We’ve also heard the state struggle to fill appointments in more rural parts of the state where the supply sits at times without demand or vaccine appoint ease has been complicated by the same digital divide that impacted school attendance.

A recent study by the University of Pittsburgh found more vaccination sites in predominantly white areas of DeKalb and Fulton counties than in predominantly African American neighborhoods while infection rates are higher for the latter.

“That is troubling. That is a gap that I would like to see addressed with mechanisms that actually work,” said DeKalb County resident Dian Chung.

As of mid-March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported knowing the race and ethnicity of just 53% of people who received at least one dose of the vaccine. Nearly two-thirds were white, 11% reported being multiracial, 9% Hispanic, 8% Black, 5% Asian and even fewer for American Indian, Alaska Native and Hawaiian.

But to this day state-level demographic data for the vaccinated is not provided by the CDC.

Leaders at Good Samaritan expect more vaccine availability will mean their task for equitable distribution will become more challenging.

“We plan to really lean on community leaders within the neighborhoods outside the health care system to help guide us on how we can get this information out,” said Good Samaritan’s Lathrop.

“There are people in academic research and clinical research who look like members of my community, but I don’t see them on television. And I think that is part of our problem because we’re not tapping the right set of resources for the people who need them the most in our underserved communities,” said Ms. Chung.

She works with diverse researchers behind the vaccines. Even with resources, she had early challenges finding an appointment for herself and her adult son with special needs. It was the online appointment systems that gave her the most trouble.

She is concerned there aren’t enough programs to drive the supply straight to where people live.

“I don’t anticipate a grandmother was going to you know just get up and be able to get on the internet to make an appointment to figure out which county she can go to,” said Ms. Chung.

Dr. Alonzo Plough, Chief Science Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, agrees.

“A fair vaccine distribution is going to be really challenging… if we have a distribution strategy that is based in retail outlets that are not accessible to folks in rural Georgia,” said Dr. Plough.

For more information about Good Samaritan Health Center, CLICK HERE.