COLUMBUS, Ohio — The state’s COVID-19 vaccination dashboard shows a glaring racial disparity — 11.6% of white residents have been vaccinated, while the figure for Black residents is only 5.1%. For Hispanic residents, it's even lower — just 3.8%.
It’s a problem officials are now addressing with an equity push centered around a series of town halls for minority communities that began Monday evening.
DeWine announced at a news conference Monday the state is backing a working group of health commissioners in counties with urban centers that is developing new approaches to reaching underserved populations. Also, state officials said Monday 20% of Ohio's vaccine doses are now being allocated using a social vulnerabilities index designed to improve vaccination rates in underrepresented communities, which is an increase from 10% — the numer provided in the state’s last update. The remainder of the state's doses are allocated to counties purely by population.
The state's poor vaccination rates in minority communities leave some of Ohio's most-impacted communities still vulnerable to the virus, even as cases drop in the state.
Two Black emergency medicine physicians in Columbus are part of an effort to address the disparity. Dr. Laura Espy-Bell, of OhioHealth, and Maureen Joyner, of Mount Carmel, were chatting on the phone one day after work, as they often do, a sort of “debrief” after their clinical shifts, when they got an idea.
“We started talking about how people of color were being disproportionately affected by this,” said Espy-Bell, who is the founder of the Columbus Black Physicians Network. “If we're being honest, it's definitely something that keeps me up at night, and so we started talking about what we could do personally to affect change.”
On Feb. 17, they released the project, "Our Community vs. COVID-19," a 3-minute video of Black Columbus physicians separating facts from fiction for Black residents who may have concerns about the vacccine.
Espy-Bell and Joyner, who is a member of the network, spoke with Spectrum News Monday afternoon shortly after the video was played during the governor’s news conference, where he promoted the town halls that began Monday night. Espy-Bell said she is hopeful the town halls, which include “a lot of familiar faces,” will make in impact.
“The fact that the state, our local health department, large healthcare organizations, and the federal government are starting to pay closer attention to this disparity and starting to make changes that address this disparity is a win for not only people of color, but a win for all of us,” she said.
The history of racism in medicine, including the Tuskegee experiment — which studied untreated syphilis using unsuspecting African-American men as the study subject — fuels vaccine concerns, according to the Columbus Black Physicians Network.
“We wanted to take a grassroots approach where we talked about what the impact the COVID virus, or COVID-19 has had on our community. We wanted to address myths and address the fact that people of color are skeptical to get the vaccine, and we wanted to express that we understand why they're skeptical,” Espy-Bell said.
On assessing the state’s rollout of the vaccine in underrepresented communities, Joyner said, “Ohio is doing OK, but there’s a lot of room for growth.”
She said it was “extremely frustrating” that her parents were unable to make an appointment without her assistance.
And she said it seems wrong that people are coming from two counties over to get the vaccine in underserved communities.
“There are many circumstances where vaccines are allocated in communities and people will drive far and wide to secure vaccines. It ends up taking away, frankly, the allocation for those zip codes. I don't think that's necessarily how it's supposed to work,” she said.
Espy-Bell raised another problem: The life expectancy for Black residents is lower than white residents, so the state’s rollout, which prioritized age above all else, may have actually exacerbated disparities.
“We need to start thinking about other determinants,” she said. “You have to realize that you may not necessarily be reaching minority communities if you’re just choosing age, and age alone.”
Joyner said it is discouraging whenever she hears people in her community taking vaccine advice not from the experts, but “from someone’s brother’s best friend’s experience.” That’s why including Black physicians in the video is so important, she said.
Even as a doctor, Joyner said she had some initial skepticism about the vaccine.
"I'm certainly far from an ‘anti-vaxxer’ — I've never really had hesitancy about routine vaccinations,” she said. “But the vaccine process was called Operation Warp Speed and when you hear that it creates a certain mental image.”
After doing her own reading and talking with colleagues who are experts in virology, she came to understand it was safe, she said.
“While I recognize that not everyone necessarily has that opportunity, I hope that our voices, and sharing what we know, will give people more comfort in going forward with the vaccination,” she said.
Gov. Mike DeWine said Monday the problem likely looks worse than it is on the state's dashboard due to bad data. The governor noted that about 113,000 vaccinations are documented by the Ohio Department of Health as “Unknown” race.
“When you've got that big a hole, we've got data that's not that good,” he said.
Some Black and Hispanic residents who are young have told providers they preferred not to share their race, DeWine said. They may feel, “We’re all in this together and shouldn’t be segmenting by race,” he said.
Black and Hispanic residents getting the vaccine may decline to report race because of a distrust of the medical system, he suggested. But previously the governor said the state was having problems with providers failing to report race, meaning a significant number of those 113,000 people may be white.
“The only thing we're trying to do, obviously, is just to make sure we're not underserving a portion of our population,” he said Monday.
State officials said the town halls will include medical experts and community leaders who will focus on addressing issues common to under served communities.
Here's the schedule for the town halls that the state is streaming:
- Monday, Feb. 22, 6:30 p.m. – African American Ohioans
- Tuesday, Feb. 23, 6:30 p.m. – Hispanic/Latino Ohioans
- Monday, March 1, 6:30 p.m. – Asian American and Pacific Islander Ohioans
- Tuesday, March 2, 6:30 p.m. – Rural Ohioans