Is the COVID-19 vaccine getting to underserved populations?

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted the Black and Brown members of our community. The data shows they are getting sick and dying at a rate much higher than white people. New York state has promised equal access to the coronavirus vaccine, but as the rollout continues, some question whether that is happening.

Age-adjusted death rates per 100,000 from the start of the pandemic until the middle of January in Monroe County show that Latinx and Black communities have been hit hardest. The data is similar on a statewide level, which is the reason Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been promising for months that there would be a focus on equitable vaccine distribution.

"Black communities, poor communities, Latino communities have a higher death rate and have had less access to COVID testing," Cuomo said at a press conference a few weeks ago. "When it comes to this vaccine, access has to be fair all across the board."

But as the rollout has gotten underway, supply issues have made distribution a challenge.

"The Black community doesn’t have enough. It doesn’t," Cuomo said Monday. "The Latino community doesn’t have enough. It doesn’t."

Sandy White of Webster agrees. She went online as soon as the state opened its vaccination website and has been disappointed ever since.

"I was on there about three hours, and every time, I’d pull up a date, and I’d type in all the information, and it would fill up quickly," White said. "So, I kept scrolling and full, full, full, full. And finally, it was April 5, I think, was the date I got."

White grabbed the appointment but is waiting and hoping that her doctor’s office through URMC will call with a sooner date.

"I really think they should prioritize the Black and Brown communities because we have more underlying conditions, and I’m just surprised I haven’t received a call yet," she said.

Medical centers and offices are required to randomly select patients from a pool of all those who qualify. URMC and Rochester Regional Health don’t yet have a breakdown of the gender and race of those that have been vaccinated. New York state runs the Dome Arena site and hasn’t released demographic information either.

The Anthony Jordan Health Center serves a primarily Black and Brown population within the city of Rochester.

"We have over 4,000 people in that category (who qualify for the vaccine), and we got 400 doses," Chief Medical Officer Dr. Laurie Donohue said.

Leaders at Jordan Health would like to reach the rest of their eligible patients in the office where those patients are most comfortable but say it’s no small task.

"All federal-qualified health centers… we don’t have a lot of extra staff around," Donohue said. "Everybody has a job, so every time we are trying to pull RNs or LPNs or clinicians, we’re taking them away from someplace else."

So, at this point, Jordan Health is mostly partnering with other community agencies to try and connect their patients with other vaccination opportunities.

"We just have to be sure that folks who don’t have access to the internet have access to these appointments," Donohue said.

Donohue also says that communication is key. Conversations about the COVID-19 vaccine are happening with patients when they come in for other issues and appointments.

"In our Latino and Latina community, there still is a great deal of resistance," Donohue said. "And I think there might be some language issues that we need to be sure (we address), not only written information but spoken information, so it gets out to folks, and so they can get in and ask their questions about the vaccine."

IBERO American Action League is holding weekly Facebook Live discussions in Spanish to connect with as many members of the Latinx community as possible

"There are a lot of Latinos that might have a grasp of English, but they’re still unfamiliar with certain medical terms, with the process of scheduling online or talking with their health professional on the phone," Jacob Santos, the director of marketing and events at IBERO, said. "It’s how do we work with that… So, we’re trying to work on mobilizing more language accessibility for Spanish speakers."

New York state has started holding "pop-up" clinics at traditionally Black and Latinx churches, community centers, and housing complexes, reaching a few hundred people at a time.

"We have volunteers that have been amazing, going door to door in some of the more challenged neighborhoods to talk with people about the vaccine and connect them to pop-up appointments," Dr. Nancy Bennett, the head of the Finger Lakes Vaccine Hub, said.

Bennett says they could use some additional help, not just with the supply of the vaccine but with educational materials associated with it.

"The materials aren’t really available as much as we would like to see them," Bennett said. "There is more capacity on a national level and a state-level when it comes to translation into multiple languages. We have some materials, but they aren’t necessarily the most helpful materials for some of our populations."

In a statement, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Health says, "Gov. Cuomo has been highlighting the intolerable reality that New Yorkers of color are dying at higher rates than white New Yorkers for months — and he has been working to ensure distribution is equitable. In just over two weeks, we’ve deployed pop-up vaccination clinics to 27 public housing developments and churches statewide, which have administered shots to nearly 10,000 New Yorkers in communities of color. Dozens more are planned for coming weeks, along with major vaccine hubs for hard-hit communities, and we plan to stand up over 300 vaccine sites in communities of color as supply continues to increase under the Biden Administration."

New Yorkers without internet access can call 1-833-NYS-4VAX to book appointments.

Both the online Vaccine Eligibility tool and the hotline are available in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Haitian Creole, Russian, and Bengali.

The hotline has a separate operating system to expedite calls from senior citizens, as well as a callback feature, so people do not have to wait on hold.