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Is Florida vaccinating racial groups equitably? It’s hard to tell

Recent data suggests the racial gaps in vaccinations are narrowing. But experts say the large amount of missing data makes it hard to be certain.
Mha’siyah Blake, 12, waits to receive a COVID-19 vaccination while his father Tshambe Blake, 44, of Tampa, fills out paperwork at a back-to-school health clinic at Middleton High School in Tampa on Saturday, July 31, 2021.
Mha’siyah Blake, 12, waits to receive a COVID-19 vaccination while his father Tshambe Blake, 44, of Tampa, fills out paperwork at a back-to-school health clinic at Middleton High School in Tampa on Saturday, July 31, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 13
Updated Sep. 21

As the worst coronavirus pandemic wave continues across the U.S., recent data shows that Black and Hispanic people are getting vaccinated at higher rates.

The racial disparity in who’s receiving shots appears to be improving. Earlier this year, when vaccines were first rolled out, both groups lagged tremendously behind their white counterparts.

But the lack of complete data makes it hard for researchers to tell if the gap is truly closing.

The trends appear to be similar in Florida. But not having specific local data on race and ethnicity makes it difficult to pinpoint where vaccination rates are equitable — or inequitable — and how to address any disparities.

Nationally, Black people make up 12 percent of the population, and federal data shows they accounted for 14 percent of first vaccine doses given out in the two weeks leading up to Sept. 10. The share for Hispanic people was even greater. They make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, but received a quarter of first doses administered during that time.

The increase is also reflected among those who are fully vaccinated.

In May, white people were nearly 80 percent more likely than Hispanic people to be fully vaccinated, according to Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist with the University of South Florida, citing data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. And white people were nearly 60 percent more likely to be fully vaccinated than Black people.

Four months later, data indicates that the disparities have narrowed significantly.

White people are only about 6 percent more likely to be vaccinated than their Hispanic counterparts and about 30 percent more likely compared to Black people, said Salemi.

Experts hope this is the start of reversing racial disparities that have plagued the vaccine rollout since it began in December, leaving people of color at higher risk of infection, hospitalization and death.

But that’s only if the data is accurate.

The race data comes from questionnaires people fill out when they receive their vaccinations. But how vaccine providers collect and report the data varies by state, and some people choose not to check a box on the race question.

For about a third of vaccinated Americans, race and ethnicity is unknown.

“I don’t feel good enough about the completeness of the data to say anything meaningful,” said Salemi. “There are so many caveats.”

A COVID-19 vaccine screening and consent form is seen on Thursday, June 17, 2021 in Tampa.
A COVID-19 vaccine screening and consent form is seen on Thursday, June 17, 2021 in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

The outlook in Florida

Florida follows the national trend. More than half of the state’s eligible population is fully vaccinated. And like the country at large, race and ethnicity is unknown for about a third of vaccinated Floridians.

As of mid-August, the Kaiser Family Foundation said Florida had the second highest percentage of COVID-19 vaccinations for which the ethnicity of the patient was unknown.

Florida Department of Health data shows that less than a third of Black Floridians 12 and older are vaccinated, compared to about half of white Floridians in that age group.

And a Kaiser analysis shows that from March to mid-August, the share of vaccines going to Hispanic people in Florida jumped, while the share going to white people declined.

But with so much missing information, the state’s racial gap in vaccinations could be better than the data shows — or worse.

When asked for comment on the incomplete race and ethnicity data, the governor’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, deferred to the Florida Department of Health, which did not respond.

One factor that casts doubt on the state’s weekly reports is that it’s unclear who makes up the “other” race and ethnicity category, said Stephanie Reed, a researcher with the nonprofit Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. The unusually high number of people checking that box leads her to believe the reporting process may be flawed.

It could be racial minorities checking the “other” box, who would then be undercounted as Black or Hispanic. It could be those of mixed race or those with ethnicities other than Black, white and Hispanic. Or it could be all of those factors.

Complicating the data problem was the state’s move on June 3 to stop providing daily COVID infection and vaccination reports, citing the reduced case counts at the time. Instead, officials began releasing weekly reports.

They also stopped publishing county-by-county vaccine data by age, race and ethnicity. Those numbers are available only for the state as a whole.

Even with case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths rising sharply since June, the state has yet to return to daily reporting.

“You can’t drill in and see what’s happening locally,” said Reed. “There really is no ability to target efforts based on race, based on age group.”

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, is suing the state, accusing it of violating public records law by withholding detailed data. The lawsuit was filed at the end of August in Leon County after the state refused a request by Smith for daily COVID-19 data.

Related: Democratic lawmaker sues Florida over COVID-19 data

Epidemiologists, scientists and researchers “need to understand how COVID is impacting all demographics including age, race and ethnicity,” Smith said. “Floridians deserve transparency.”

Kenny Butler, 30, braces himself to receive the Pfizer vaccine during a community outreach event and vaccination drive hosted by Not My Son and Today’s Church. “They told me to say no to drugs but I’m saying yes today,” Butler said moments before, going Live on Facebook, nervous about the needle. “Pfizer in the name of Jesus!” Friday, July 30, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
Kenny Butler, 30, braces himself to receive the Pfizer vaccine during a community outreach event and vaccination drive hosted by Not My Son and Today’s Church. “They told me to say no to drugs but I’m saying yes today,” Butler said moments before, going Live on Facebook, nervous about the needle. “Pfizer in the name of Jesus!” Friday, July 30, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Meanwhile, local efforts to improve vaccination rates continue in communities of color, where doubt and misinformation persists.

Dr. Kevin Sneed has been working throughout the pandemic to educate these communities about the vaccines. He’s getting more requests than ever to host information sessions, he said.

Sneed, the dean of the University of South Florida’s Taneja College of Pharmacy, meets with people one-on-one, spends time in barbershops and hosts community Zoom sessions to chip away at misinformation.

Questions largely driven by social media myths — such as false claims that vaccinations impact fertility and that the mRNA vaccine technology alters a person’s DNA — are mostly what he hears.

“It’s very healthy skepticism about the pharmaceutical companies and their role,” said Sneed. His job, he said, is not to convince people to get vaccinated, but to plant a seed with new, accurate information.

As more people see family members and friends falling seriously ill with the coronavirus, some are more open to receiving information and getting shots, said Sneed.

A nationwide comparison

Nationwide, the quality of COVID race and ethnicity data has improved in recent months, said Nambi Ndugga, a policy analyst with Kaiser Family Foundation. But the quality varies by state.

North Carolina requires providers to report race and ethnicity for each shot they administer, she said, which has provided the state with the data necessary to build equity into their vaccine distribution. Vermont and Illinois also have more complete data, said Ndugga.

With other states doing better than Florida, advocates wonder if there is more the state can do.

“More needs to be done to take a look at the process and every point along the way,” said Alison Yager, executive director of the Florida Health Justice Project, which has been tracking COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations by race.

“My fear with this incomplete data is that it paints the picture that the disparities are not as bad as they actually are,” said Yager. “Without that urgency, there’s a risk of complacency.”

Experts say they will continue to watch for vaccine equity as booster shots are expected to become available this month.

But without more granular data, said Reed, the local researcher, “it’s really just a very broad campaign that universally says, ‘everyone get vaccinated.’”

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.

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