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Administration ‘worried’ by limited vaccine data

By Francesca Chambers and Michael Wilner
McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS

WASHINGTON - Biden administration officials are expressing frustration over inadequate data on how many Black and Hispanic Americans have received COVID-19 vaccines, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday that it lacked race and ethnicity information on nearly half of those vaccinated in the first month.

The Biden administration has pledged to increase attention and resources on the equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines among minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic - a difficult task without the data to guide them on who is getting vaccinated where, White House officials said.

The few data points available, they say, are of concern. The new CDC study showed that only 5.4 percent of Americans who received vaccines during the first month available were Black. African Americans make up roughly 13.4 percent of the U.S. population.

Overall, the report found that 39.6 percent of individuals vaccinated represented racial and ethnic minorities, including 11.5 percent identifying as Hispanic or Latino.

But the CDC and President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response team said the available data does not cover all those who have received the vaccine.

“Interpretation of data from the analysis of COVID-19 vaccination initiation is limited by the high percentage of records with unknown or missing race/ethnicity information,” the CDC report concludes. “Race/ethnicity was unknown for approximately one half of the population who initiated vaccination during the first month of the COVID-19 vaccination program in the United States.”

Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity task force, said that as of Jan. 30 the federal government is missing race and ethnicity data on 47 percent of Americans who have received vaccinations.

“We cannot ensure an equitable vaccination program without data to guide us,” she said to reporters. “I’m worried about how behind we are. We must address these insufficient data points as an urgent priority.”

Nunez-Smith said the health equity task force would be offering recommendations on how to improve the information that is being collected and that federal health officials were meeting with state and local governments about their equity plans.

“These challenges reflect longstanding and deeply rooted systemic challenges. We’re not suggesting these problems are easily solved,” Nunez-Smith said.

States should make a greater effort to report race and ethnicity data, said Andy Slavitt, senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 response team, which would help the government get the vaccine to those at greatest risk of hospitalization and death.

The Trump administration had said it would follow distribution guidelines recommended by an independent ethics advisory panel for ensuring equitable allocation of the new vaccines.

That administration largely deferred to state and local governments to handle distribution within their own jurisdictions, which administration officials say led to an inconsistent patchwork that has made it difficult for the federal government to keep track of everyone receiving the vaccine.

“Governors are obviously overseeing the distribution and efforts to ensure that the vaccine is getting into communities across the country - we are closely engaged with them and looking for ways to help assist on that front,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

“We’re also working with CDC to identify and explore ways to urgently improve the quality of vaccination data reporting by race and ethnicity. There’s no question, it’s not the level we need it to be at,” she said.

Last week, signing an executive order related to equitable access to vaccines, Biden said that the devastation wrought by the pandemic on Black communities across the country was “nothing short of stunning.”

“Access. We have to change,” Biden said. “We have moved in a direction for those communities that are hard to get to.”

Dr. Taison Bell, a critical care and infectious disease physician at the University of Virginia who is on UVA’s vaccine distribution committee, said that the Biden administration is “coming out of the gate handicapped” without complete and accurate data on who is getting vaccinated.

“We know that the data should be collected. It’s something that CDC has wanted to do, they put out several press releases and reports before outlining the problem, but it’s time to actually just fix it,” he said of demographic information on COVID-19.

Hesitancy to get the vaccine may be partially responsible for lower rates of vaccination in communities of color, but civil rights leaders and experts say access to the vaccine is a predominant issue.

“If you’re on the fence, and it’s going to take you three hours of dedicated time to try to sign up, then you’re going to find yourself on the other side of the fence not getting the vaccine just because it’s not personally convenient for you,” Bell said. “So it needs to be much easier to sign up.”

Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said that while there is “trepidation” about taking a vaccine, the government also needs to improve its outreach to Black communities.

Her organization has commissioned its own study on the barriers to access, she said.

Campbell said that racial minorities should be prioritized for vaccination, given that they are dying from COVID-19 at a higher rate, and the vaccine must be made easier to obtain in their communities.

“You don’t want it to be difficult for somebody to have to go across town in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.