The Nevada Vaccine Equity Collaborative has been tasked with a difficult assignment: research where the need for COVID-19 vaccination is greatest, and convince skeptical residents the shots are safe. For the first time, that new coalition seeking to address disparities in the state’s vaccine distribution will convene this week.
And those disparities are stark. According to the Nevada Health Response website’s data dashboard, less than 12% of vaccines have gone to Latinx Nevadans, even though they make up about a third of the population. Black residents accounted for less than 5% of doses — far lower than their nearly 9% share of the state’s residents.
By contrast, their white neighbors made up more than 57% of vaccine recipients, but represent less than half of the overall population.
The statewide statistics parallel what Gov. Steve Sisolak called an “equity crisis” unfolding in Clark County during a Feb. 5 address.
“I am alarmed at what I am seeing,” he said. “What the data shows is clear: There is a disparity in who is receiving the vaccine that does not reflect the demographics of that region.”
The Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD), which oversees public health for the Las Vegas metropolitan area, has been reporting information about vaccine distribution since early January. By the time of Sisolak’s announcement, the data showed Black and Latinx residents of Clark County were lagging in terms of vaccine access.
In contrast to SNHD, which controls a greater share of the vaccine being sent to Clark County, the Washoe County Health District only controls about 60% of vaccine doses in the region. Local governmental agencies, community health organizations and private healthcare providers are responsible for the rest.
That means Washoe County relies on the state to provide data on who’s getting vaccinated, according to Regional Operations Chief for COVID Response and Vaccine Deployment James English.
“We can look at our analysis of the data, but we can’t see what other providers have done,” he said.
A spokesperson for the county said while the state had sent some demographic information, it still wasn’t publicly available at the time this article was published.
In order to address the disparities, Sisolak announced the state would work to increase trust in the vaccine itself.
“With the recent infusion of federal funding, the state is stepping up its partnership with Immunize Nevada to expand marketing and outreach to all communities,” he said.
Erika Marquez, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who is helping lead the new equity effort, is blunt about the challenges they face.
“It’s not just about whether we put the vaccine sites in the communities that need them,” she said. “We also know that each of our communities have different concerns about accessing the vaccine.”
Marquez has already been working on tailored messaging for many of Nevada’s diverse communities, including Latinx, Black and Native American residents through the One Community campaign. Even though misinformation and hesitancy about the vaccine are national concerns, Marquez said they find different expressions among distinct groups.
Black communities, for instance, have to overcome the legacy that centuries of racism and medical abuse have left. As recently as the 1970s, Black men diagnosed with syphilis unknowingly went without medical treatment so that U.S. government scientists could study the course the disease took in their bodies during the infamous Tuskegee Experiment.
In an interview with KNPR’s State of Nevada, Marquez said some Latinx Nevadans have concerns over what kinds of identification will be required to get vaccinated.
“The mistrust is coming from our undocumented and mixed-status families,” she said. “About being tracked or that information going back to some type of federal agency in which that would then lead to some type of deportation.”
A recent statement from the Department of Homeland Security sought to ease those concerns.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will not conduct enforcement operations at or near vaccine distribution sites or clinics,” the statement read.
To address those hurdles, Marquez says the new collaborative is seeking to partner with leaders who are already trusted sources of information in their respective communities.
“That’s no easy lift,” she said. “We’re working to figure out who are the people who we need to get engaged and how we help disseminate correct information.”
They also plan to develop a model that will help state officials direct resources to where they’re most needed, similar to the Social Vulnerability Index developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to Marquez, the next step for the statewide collaborative will be to analyze community needs to help guide vaccine distribution to high-risk populations.
“We really want to look at state level, county data, census tract data, to really help inform how we identify and prioritize the most at-risk populations,” she said. “Hopefully in the next couple of weeks we’ll be able to have a better frame of reference.”
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