If the coalition coordinating COVID-19 vaccines in West Michigan gets judged for anything, Keith Hustak hopes it’s for how well the group equitably administers doses.
The West Michigan Vaccine Clinic at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids was a significant accomplishment to provide vaccines on a mass scale — it hopes to provide up to 20,000 a day. The clinic’s January opening now allows the West Michigan Vaccine Collaborative to pivot “and really start to focus” more on the equitable distribution and administration of vaccines, said Hustak, vice president for urgent care, occupational and virtual health at Spectrum Health.
“We need to be judged not by DeVos Place, but by this (equity issue),” Hustak said during this month’s West Michigan Health Forum sponsored by Grand Valley State University.
Hustak and others say distributing the vaccine equitably is a priority in the pandemic that has hit racial and ethnic minority communities harder than others. As they pursue that commitment, survey data has repeatedly shown racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to get vaccinated or are taking a wait-and-see approach.
In a monthly national poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation in January, 35 percent of Black respondents and 42 percent of Hispanic respondents said they had already gotten a vaccine or would as soon as possible. That compares to 53 percent of white respondents.
Black and Hispanic residents were more likely to take a wait-and-see approach toward the vaccine — 43 percent and 37 percent, respectively — compared to 26 percent of white respondents, according to the poll.
Debra Furr-Holder, an epidemiology and biostatistics professor at Michigan State University, believes those findings do not reflect a hesitancy among ethnic and racial minorities to get the vaccine.
Furr-Holder cites Genesee County and the Flint area where she works. The public health department has a waiting list of 30,000 people who want to get the vaccine, and the list grows by about 2,000 people per day. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also show that African American parents generally vaccinate their children at the same rates as white parents.
In COVID-19 vaccinations, “the problem is there is this disconnect” that is not about the vaccine itself, she said.
“It’s more like skepticism, but it’s not skepticism of the vaccine. It’s skepticism that there’s an actual, authentic commitment from our nation and our leaders that African Americans emerge and recover from the pandemic equally as their white counterparts,” Furr-Holder said. “It’s the overall inequality.”
Data that the Michigan Task Force on Racial Disparities reported in December showed that Black residents who make up about 14 percent of the state’s population accounted for more than 40 percent of all COVID-19 cases and deaths earlier in the pandemic. Appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the task force said that efforts during the past year to address racial disparities in health care reduced that to 9.1 percent of all cases and 5.7 percent of COVID-19 deaths as of December.
Grand Rapids City Commissioner Joe Jones, who recently stepped down as CEO of the Urban League of West Michigan to start a consulting firm focused on social equity, said after the pandemic’s disproportionate harm to communities of color, the focus now is on vaccine distribution.
“The lift is really to persuade or influence those communities to consider the vaccine,” Jones said. “Historically the atrocities that have taken place particularly with the African American community and the medical community are well known. That distrust has been developed, so that’s legit. To be able to communicate to the African American and Latinx communities about the need to take the vaccine — and yet respect their decision not to — weighs heavily on me.”
In another example of racial disparities in the response to COVID-19, Furr-Holder points to how African American-owned businesses were the smallest recipients of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans.
Given historic inequities, including in access to health care, “How is it now people are supposed to believe, ‘We care so much about you, we want you to have this very important layer of protection,’ when all of these other important layers weren’t prioritized?” Furr-Holder said.
Furr-Holder, who served on the Michigan Task Force on Racial Disparities, would like to see the federal government mandate and require states to demonstrate equitable distribution and administration of the vaccine.
A state dashboard presently lists vaccine administration by age and gender, but as of last week lacked racial and ethnic data, although the state intends to add it soon.
The Kent County Health Department is working to compile that kind of data “so we can better make strategies to make sure we’re addressing equity,” Dr. Nirali Bora, the department’s medical director, said during the GVSU West Michigan Health Forum.
The pandemic brought to the forefront health care disparities that care providers have said they commit to resolve.
With the vaccine, equal access “is a huge issue,” said Dr. Andrew Jameson, director of infectious disease at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s in Grand Rapids. The health system partnered with Spectrum Health and the Kent County Health Department on the DeVos Place clinic.
The West Michigan Vaccine Collaborative now looks to partner with groups such as Latinx organizations and the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute (GRAAHI) on outreach to minority communities on creating understanding of the vaccine, Hustak said.
GRAAHI, which works to address racial disparities in health care, has been partnering with care providers to learn about the vaccine “in order to provide the education within the community,” CEO Vanessa Greene told MiBiz last month.
Prior survey data from the Kaiser Family Foundation indicated “we have to do a lot in terms of overcoming that fear and that history” of racial disparities in health care, she said.
“We will be on the forefront of this and have ongoing conversations to inform and educate our community so people can make an informed decision, and in order to do that we have to be talking and we have to be talking often in reaching a wide spectrum of our community,” Greene said.
Mercy Health Saint Mary’s now is planning to set up “pop-up” vaccine clinics, and this week was going to embed a vaccine administrator at its Clinica Santa Maria on Grandville Avenue in Grand Rapids that serves a Latinx population. The goal is to “try to meet people when they show up” for medical appointments, Jameson said last week during a media briefing.
“We’re going to try to meet people where they’re at, so as they see their doctor and as they get to a situation and environment they trust, they can then schedule an appointment for a vaccine, and it may be at that time,” Jameson said.