Over the past couple of weeks, some states have expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines to certain age-specific and at-risk groups. The light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel is beginning to feel closer. But while early data is incomplete, a clear divide is already emerging: People in wealthy — often white — communities are getting vaccinated at disproportionately higher rates.
So far, data has shown that low-income communities of color have been hit hardest by coronavirus, so why is it that largely white neighborhoods have been able to flood vaccination appointment systems — or get around them entirely — taking up a considerably outsized share of already limited resources?
According to data released last weekend for New York City, white people have received nearly half of the available doses of the vaccine. Meanwhile, Black and Latinx residents were greatly underrepresented given their respective share of the city’s population. In Colorado, 1 of 16 white residents has received the vaccine so far. In comparison, only 1 of 50 Latinx residents have, despite making up 20% of the state’s population, reports Colorado Springs' The Gazette. These are just a couple of examples of unequal access nationwide. Furthermore, there are countless examples of wealthy people using connections and creatively skirting requirements to jump the line.
In Florida, board members of a West Palm Beach nursing home showed up to get COVID-19 shots meant for their residents. A SoulCycle instructor in New York publicized getting the vaccine on social media claiming she was an "educator." Had she not, she would not have been qualified to receive the vaccine yet.
Perhaps the clearest example of this inequity, though, is in California. Data shows that of the state's 40 million residents, those in wealthy areas are receiving far more vaccinations than those in poorer neighborhoods. In a study released by the L.A. County Department of Public Health, Bel-Air, Beverly Hills, and Pacific Palisades — some of the area's wealthiest neighborhoods — report some of the highest vaccination rates, with 25% or more residents receiving at least one dose. In comparison, neighborhoods reporting vaccination rates under 9% are among those considered less affluent.
This is in some part due to the appointment registration process. Whoever can devote the most time to getting an appointment is often the one who gets the appointment. It is also affected by a region's ease of distribution. Regions like the San Francisco Bay Area were able to distribute vaccinations more easily by leveraging ample resources, whereas overburdened communities have had to scale back vaccination efforts, according to NBC News, because they simply do not have the power to do more.
“The findings clearly indicate very significant inequities in the distribution of vaccine to date,” Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health told The Los Angeles Times. “These inequities are unjust and unacceptable and demand renewed efforts to address them.”
It's impossible to deny that the vaccine rollout has been slow and uneven. Public patience has worn thin, but for some, additional time and expense mean nothing in terms of getting a vaccine that is being treated as a commodity. For most, however, spending additional resources is simply not an option. They are at the mercy of the convoluted system. Some of this, according to The New York Times, is due to a confluence of obstacles like registration phone lines and websites taking hours to navigate lack of transportation, and difficulty getting time off to get to appointments.
In an interview with Insider, Arthur Caplan, founder of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine, described the vaccine rollout process as “a screwed-up mess.” Caplan said he believed wealthy people were incentivized to use their status and influence to cut the line, in part, because of a lack of trust in the system. Regulations have not been consistent from state to state and appointments have been difficult to come by. “People began to say, ‘To hell with it, I’m going to use my money or my connections and see what I could do,’” he said.
Privileged peoples' ability to manipulate access is not the only factor at play. For some, it is about information. A tracking poll published by the Kaiser Family Foundation in January found that the overall share of people who wanted to get the vaccine as soon as it was available to them had increased since December. However, 43% of Black adults and 37% of Hispanic adults claimed they wanted to “wait and see how it’s working.” In comparison, only 26% of white adults who participated in the poll felt the same.
Some state officials are trying to remedy the problem to varying success. Washington, D.C., pivoted its approach, offering the first day of new appointments to people in zip codes with the highest rates of infection and deaths from coronavirus. After that, more appointments were made available to people from other neighborhoods. Other cities, like Dallas, have attempted to implement similar policies, but have been met with resistance from state officials. Some fear that singling out neighborhoods for priority access could invite lawsuits in the future.
Inequity has been a distressing feature of the pandemic since the start. What makes it worse is that, even before the pandemic, this divide was nothing new. Coronavirus has already pointed a glaring spotlight on who is able to work remotely, who can afford to get weeks' worth of groceries delivered in advance, and more — and now, it's laying bare the ugly truth about who has access to the vaccine.