COVID-19 vaccines aren’t being distributed evenly in Galveston County, and eight weeks into a rocky rollout health officials are trying to figure out how to make the system more equitable.
Nearly 200 people on Friday were vaccinated at Greater St. Matthews Baptist Church in Hitchcock.
People vaccinated at the church were chosen from the tens of thousands of people on the county’s vaccination waiting list. They weren’t chosen at random, said Dr. Philip Keiser, Galveston County’s Local Health Authority.
For Friday’s event, the Galveston County Health District invited people who live in ZIP codes that have been underrepresented in the county’s vaccinations so far and where there are higher rates of COVID infections, Keiser said.
Targeting vaccinations is tricky because there’s little information available to the county when people are being invited to get their shot.
“With the waitlist, we don’t collect race information,” Keiser said. “That was done intentionally, so that we would not scare people away. We’re now struggling with a way to use the waitlist to make things equitable.”
The Galveston County Health District estimates that only about 4 percent of people who have been vaccinated in Galveston County are African American, Keiser said. But a full picture of vaccination demographics is still fuzzy.
A summary of local vaccinations on the Texas Department of State Health Services website reports that of the more than 41,000 people in the county who have been at least partially vaccinated, 12,942 people, or 39.7 percent, were of Asian descent.
The number is baffling and has been dismissed by local health officials.
According to 2019 census estimates, there are only 11,619 Asian people in all of Galveston County.
The University of Texas Medical Branch, which has distributed most of the vaccines sent to Galveston County since December, said about 65 percent of its vaccinations have gone to white people, 16 percent have gone to Hispanic people and 9 percent have gone to Black people.
The medical branch’s figures aren’t limited to just Galveston County residents and included vaccinations made at facilities in Harris and Brazoria counties.
Still, the medical branch’s vaccinations have disproportionately gone to white people compared to all three county’s populations.
Although the ultimate goal is to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, some health experts worry that unequal rollouts of vaccines will discourage some groups from ultimately seeking inoculations or that it will leave some of the most vulnerable groups unprotected for longer periods of time.
Indeed, the local vaccine rollout is disproportionate with the demographics of people who have been affected the worst by the coronavirus.
Of the 27,657 cases of COVID-19 identified in Galveston County since last March, more than 10,700 cases, 38 percent of the total, have been in Hispanic residents, according to the health district. Nearly half of the deaths reported in the county have been in Hispanic residents.
WHAT’S BEING DONE
Local officials are aware of the disparities in the rollout. The medical branch’s vaccine distribution task force even has multiple subcommittees dedicated to addressing issues of inequality in getting people vaccinated.
The committees have taken on the task of translating vaccine information into Spanish, and organizing vaccine information events with leaders in minority communities.
There isn’t an easy way to address the issue of disparities in vaccinations, because those disparities are already baked into other parts of health care systems and other parts of society, said Dr. Farah Kudrath, a psychiatry resident at the medical branch and member of the vaccine task force
“It really just highlights the social factors that affect communities in a lot of different places,” Kudrath said. “These differences don’t appear out of thin air.”
Some groups have offered to help community members who might be missing out on access to vaccines because of a lack of access or familiarity with technology.
At Texas City’s Moore Memorial Public Library, employees have begun helping people use the library’s computers to sign up for the county’s vaccine waiting list.
“I do feel good about helping people through this difficult time, even though I’m just a lowly librarian,” said Maegan Rocio, the library’s young adult and public service librarian.
Greater St. Matthews Church also has begun offering similar help to people, officials said.
Those kind of efforts could begin to address the disparities, Keiser said.
But for now, some of the differences in who is getting vaccinated might remain apparent, including at the county’s Hitchcock church initiative.
Although the event was designed to focus an underserved communities, many of the early attendees at Friday’s clinic were white people from outside of Hitchcock, Keiser said.
Keiser believed that was a consequence of some communities not having easy access to the website login for the waiting list, and said the health district planned to do more outreach to underserved communities in the weeks to come to correct that.