Initial COVID-19 vaccine data in North Carolina reveals racial disparities

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Eighty-one percent of North Carolinians who received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine are white, according to newly released data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).

The data further showing 8% of people who received the vaccine are Black and only 4% Hispanic.

When compared to the overall population of North Carolina, both Black and Latino communities are severely underrepresented in COVID-19 vaccination data.

NCDHHS's vaccine data is based on the first week of doses that went to 53 hospitals to vaccinate frontline workers.

"This is very early data. Most places didn't even get vaccines until last Thursday so this is very early data and what you are seeing is initial health care workforce being reflected in those early days," said North Carolina's health director Dr. Betsey Tilson in an interview with ABC11.

Black and Latino individuals are underrepresented in North Carolina's healthcare workforce, according to 2019 data from the Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

Thirty-two percent of North Carolinians are nonwhite, according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates. However, only licensed practical nurses in North Carolina match the diversity of the state with 35% of its employees identifying as Black, Latino or American Indian, based on the Sheps Center's data.

However, experts said licensed practical nurses are more likely to work in nursing homes, and so many were likely not included in the first round of vaccination.

Other positions like physicians, registered nurses and respiratory therapists, who are more likely working directly with COVID-19 patients, have a less diverse workforce. The Sheps Center for Health Services Research reports only around 15% of North Carolina workers in these positions are an underrepresented minority.

Tilson said the numbers only represent very early vaccination data, but the health department is watching the trends.

"We do see that disparity so really thinking through how are we reaching out," Tilson said.

Throughout the pandemic, health officials across the state have sought to ensure equal access to COVID-19 resources by targeting historically marginalized communities for testing events. Health leaders said they are continuing to work to provide equitable care and establish trust with these communities as the availability of vaccines increase.

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"A large portion of our health care workforce are from historically marginalized populations, are from communities of color, so we want to continue to reach out to those communities, understanding their concerns, understanding their barriers and ensuring that they have the same access to the vaccine as their white counterparts in the health care workforce," Tilson said.

Katye Griffin, the executive director of the Public Health Association of NC, said local health directors across the state are also discussing ways to reach all parts of the community.

"We want to remember that we're at 24,500 vaccinations out of 10 million people in the state so it's still really early but as we continue in this effort, I think the health directors are hopeful that as more doses become available and people begin to see that the vaccines are indeed safe--as the data suggests--then we'll see a better cross section of all communities," Griffin said.

Both Griffin and Tilson said this data will be useful to monitor trends across the state moving forward.

"That data is really important for us as well as for the public because we do want to ensure equity to access to vaccine and it is important to have that accountability," Tilson said.
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