Delaware minorities were hit hard by COVID-19. Are they getting the vaccine?

Meredith Newman Isabel Hughes
Delaware News Journal

Early state data shows a striking racial disparity in COVID-19 vaccine distribution, with Black and Latino Delawareans making up a small percentage of those who have received at least one dose.

Of the more than 100,000 doses administered, 38% of recipients are white, 4% are Black, 2% are Hispanic/Latino and 1% are Asian, according to data from the Division of Public Health

"Another/multiple” is labeled as the race or ethnicity for about 23%. Plus, the race of 31% of recipients is unknown despite this data point being a required component of vaccine reporting. 

State health officials say some providers did not collect race data or input it correctly, and now the health department is working to correct it.

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Delaware is one of at least 17 states already showing early signs of racial inequity in its vaccination distribution, according to researchers. But the First State, like many, is still just beginning its first phase, with residents 65 and older just having access to the vaccination less than two weeks ago.

Thousands of Delawareans are expected to receive the first of two doses of the vaccine in the coming weeks. 

“We are very concerned we are not reaching all Delawareans in an equitable way," Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health, said during a press briefing.

“These numbers are not OK with us."

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Patricia Bennett receives the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from New Castle County Paramedics Sgt. Scott Kier on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. The state vaccinated 950 health care workers and senior citizens as part of its "soft launch" of administering the vaccine to residents who are 65 or older.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, the state wasn’t tracking the race and ethnicity of COVID-19 patients. This was, in part, because more than half the labs performing the test didn't ask these questions or require them — making it difficult to determine at the time how COVID-19 was affecting communities of color. 

As the virus tightened its grip on Delaware, the data became clear: COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting Blacks and Latinos, particularly in areas of Sussex County. 

Nationally, Blacks and Latinos are experiencing the worst outcomes of the virus, with a disproportionate number being hospitalized or dying of the disease. Here in Delaware, the state is not publicly tracking the race of Delawareans hospitalized with the coronavirus.

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Delaware Hispanics and Latinos have been hit hard by the virus, making up 17% of  COVID-19 cases despite consisting of less than 10% of the state population.

Data released on Feb. 1 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a significant disparity across the country. Of those vaccinated between Dec. 14 and Jan. 14, 60% were white, 11.5% were Hispanic; 6% were Asian, 5% were Black and 2% were American Indian or Alaskan Native. About 14% of people vaccinated said they were multiple or other races. 

Division of Public Health spokeswoman Jennifer Brestel said the department is working to “backfill that information as well as communicate weekly with providers regarding their responsibility and requirement to report that information.”

Gov. John Carney is expected to announce a plan to ensure that providers are reporting race and demographic information to the state, officials said. 

Dr. Rick Hong, medical director for the Division of Public Health, attributed the limited racial data to a “learning curve” among providers. For other vaccines, providers don’t need to include data like race. There were also IT issues, he said. 

Hong said the state is now going through a manual process of identifying those who are labeled as “another” or “multiple.” He said this answer should have been put into one category, instead of multiple. There were some situations in which people did not report race. 

“We all understand the importance of having this data available,” Hong said. 

A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of the 17 states that are publicly reporting COVID-19 vaccination data by race showed early signs of disparity. Many of these states, like Delaware, had incomplete data. 

In nearly every one of the states, including Delaware, the “shares of vaccinations among Black and Hispanic people are lower compared to their shares of the total population,” according to the researchers.

Dr. Hong said the state is modeling its vaccination outreach to communities of color based on its earlier COVID-19 testing outreach, by working with community groups. 

Both outreach efforts had similarities in testing challenges, access and hesitancy.

“These communities know what their needs are and we are not dictating or assuming certain things,” Hong said, “so we really appreciate these community leaders standing up and helping guide us in the right direction to get the vaccine into these communities."

The state on Tuesday announced that it will expand its COVID-19 vaccine distribution program to better target communities of color. This includes working with the Wilmington Housing Authority to vaccinate residents age 65 and older who live in high-rises for older adults, officials said.

Select pharmacies have also received 4,000 doses this week with the purpose of vaccinating underserved communities.

Rattay, director of DPH, said during a Tuesday press briefing that only 7.4% of people ages 65 and older who signed up for a vaccine dose through the state's registration site are African American, while 1.6% are Latino. 

"We really would like to see more folks get on the registry," she said, "but it also really is an important signal to us that we've got to find other ways to reach people in their communities." 

Jennifer Horney, a University of Delaware professor and founding director of the college’s epidemiology program, cautioned that the vaccine rollout is still early. The professor believes the state will see a better distribution in the coming weeks because Delaware minorities are likely “over-represented” in phase 1B. 

In addition to those age 65 and older, phase 1B includes the following essential workers: police; fire; teachers; child care providers; food processing workers; correctional officers; and Postal Service, public transit and grocery workers. 

Right now, Horney said, the biggest challenge is getting shots into arms. 

“We’re moving in the right direction,” she said. “We have a lot left to do.”