Getting a COVID-19 vaccine appointment was frustrating for Brenda Hong.
The 75-year-old said the online registration system was tough to navigate and she waited weeks for an appointment confirmation that never came. Ultimately, Hong's niece had to schedule her for the shot earlier this month at a community vaccine site.
Hong fears the difficult sign-up process could discourage other elderly, Black people from getting vaccinated.
"Somebody has to fix this," said Hong, of Birmingham, Alabama. "It should not be about who you know, and how much money you have and your place in life, it should not be like that."
Lawmakers and civil rights leaders say the country has lagged with equitable vaccine access to vulnerable, communities of color since the shot became more widely available this year. They say hesitancy -- which was a major concern in December when the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines first received federal approval -- is decreasing and many people of color don't have vaccine sites in their neighborhood, transportation, internet access, or anyone to help them with the registration process that is largely online. The issue has put some state officials under fire for failing to address disparities that show White people are being vaccinated at higher rates than Black and Latino people who have died at higher rates from COVID-19.
In the last two months, reports have emerged from states such as New York and California where vaccine sites in hard hit neighborhoods served more White people from outside the community.
In Birmingham, one majority Black neighborhood was among the last to receive vaccine doses. Black people in Alabama have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19 making up 29% of cases, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The state is 27% Black.
Health advocates say they are now counting on President Joe Biden to keep his promise of vaccine equity for marginalized people. Biden announced earlier this month that through the American Rescue Plan, his administration would boost efforts to get vaccines to hard-hit communities. His plan included doubling the number of mass vaccination sites led by federal agencies and deploying mobile units to vaccinate people in underserved neighborhoods.
"We've got to ramp this up quickly," said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. "We need a mass effort. We have to mobilize community-based sites all across the nation."
A poll conducted by CBS News/YouGov found that among White people, 26% say they have gotten the vaccine, compared with 17% of Black adults and 11% of Hispanic adults. That same poll found that 41% of Hispanics, 34% of Blacks and 31% of Whites say they want the vaccine.
Another poll conducted last month by Cornell Belcher, the National Urban League and the Alliance of National Psychological Associations for Racial and Ethnic Equity said that 67% of Black people and 71% of Latino people are willing to take the vaccine. Respondents say they were "very concerned" about their health and the health of their families, the survey found.
But the recent polling suggests that isn't the case.
Morial said it was a "mistake" to rely heavily on states to distribute the vaccines. Funding needs to also go to city and county governments who are closely connected with their communities, Morial said. Vaccines, he said, should be available at community health centers, schools, libraries and pharmacies.
State officials in Alabama were criticized for failing to ensure some poor, Black and brown communities had vaccines.
For example, the Alabama Regional Medical Services clinic, on Birmingham's north side, wasn't able to administer the vaccine until March because it didn't have any doses.
Suburban White communities, meanwhile, had been receiving vaccine shipments for weeks, said Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson.
Tyson said the state has not prioritized getting COVID-19 vaccines or testing to Black residents who are the most vulnerable to the virus. She believes the state should be partnering with community groups and trusted leaders who can help reach people of color.
"We have so many barriers that's there but we still are willing to take the vaccine if they would give it to us," Tyson said. "Because we are trying to live. This is a matter of life and death for a lot of us."
Missing the mark on equity
Some vaccine sites across the country have been the center of controversy in recent months for opening up in Black and brown communitiesbut vaccinating mostly White people from outside the neighborhood. Some of the reported examples include:
- Earlier this month, vaccine organizers at the Oakland Coliseum in California were criticized for giving nearly half of their doses to White people when the site was meant to serve low-income, people of color hit hard by the pandemic.
- California officials were also blasted in February when a vaccine program meant for Black and Latino communities was misused by outsiders who obtained the special codes needed to schedule appointments.
- In January, a vaccine site in the predominately Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York saw an overwhelming number of White people from outside the community show up to get the shot when it first opened.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also faced bipartisan criticism after the state set up invitation-only vaccination clinics in at least two upscale communities in early March.
Community advocates say the online registration systems for vaccines leave out people who face language barriers, can't afford internet or aren't comfortable using computers.
For example, in Washington Heights/Inwood, 37% of residents have "limited English proficiency," according to the 2018 NYC Health report.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, 19 million Americans, or 6% of the population, lack access to broadband service at threshold speeds.
Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee said the nation has historically shut out people of color due to systemic racism and lack of health care access in their communities.
Lee said overcoming this troubled history and resolving disparities will be the only way to end the COVID-19 pandemic.
She wants to see more partnerships with trusted messengers and non-profit and faith organizations to help get more vaccines into the arms of people of color.
"If you don't have access to the internet, how do you get the vaccine?" Lee said. "If you don't have a car, how do you get to the vaccination centers. If you are homebound, unless somebody comes to give you the vaccine at home, how do you get the vaccine? There are a lot of layers to this."