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Philadelphia's Imbalanced Vaccination Rates Fueled By Lack Of Access

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Vaccination rates for Black and Latino people in Philadelphia are half what they are for whites. WHYY's Nina Feldman reports on what the city's doing to fix that.

NINA FELDMAN, BYLINE: Even before COVID-19 vaccines became available, there were concerns that Black and Latino people would be hesitant to take them. Kent Bream never bought that.

KENT BREAM: I said send me vaccine and I will show you there is not the level of vaccine hesitancy that you think there is.

FELDMAN: Bream runs a community health clinic in a predominantly Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia. In the early months of the city's rollout, only 20% of vaccines went to Black residents. Philadelphia as a whole is more than 40% Black. As more vaccine became available, there was a new challenge. Community clinics like Bream's, which have established relationships with patients, don't have enough staff to give them all shots. And mass clinics weren't a solution for everyone. Those can be hard to access for people with limited Internet, transportation and work schedules.

SHARRELLE BARBER: We know that, you know, Black residents are disproportionately among essential workers and workers in these kinds of jobs.

FELDMAN: Sharrelle Barber is a social epidemiologist at Drexel University.

BARBER: Their flexibility to not show up to work to be able to get a vaccine is just limited.

FELDMAN: To a degree, Philadelphia officials recognized that. They prioritized vaccine eligibility for essential workers. But Barber says eligibility is only half the battle.

BARBER: You can fall within an eligibility bracket, for example, and still not have the access. And so therein lies, again, why we're seeing, you know, these inequities still persist.

FELDMAN: City data shows clinic location is key for who gets vaccinated. Back in February, Philly partnered with FEMA to open a mass vaccination site downtown. It happens to be right on the border of the city's Chinatown neighborhood. Until then, Asians were being vaccinated slowly, at the same rate as Black and Latino residents. In the weeks after the FEMA clinic opened, that rate skyrocketed, and Asians now have a higher vaccination rate than any other demographic group in the city. So to try to even things out, the city just opened a second FEMA site in a predominantly Latino neighborhood with one of the lowest vaccination rates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Are you here for the vaccine?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, I had an appointment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right.

FELDMAN: Edgar Perez is 51 and lives a few blocks from the new site. He says he tried to get vaccinated at nearby Temple Hospital a few weeks ago, but it didn't work out.

EDGAR PEREZ: I went to Temple last time, and they told me I had to make an appointment. I'm not in the system yet, so I had to wait. So now, I'm going to try to do this.

FELDMAN: Here, he just walked up, no appointment necessary. A shuttle runs all day between the clinic and the nearest subway stop. Signs in many languages make it clear there are no immigration officials here. Drexel epidemiologist Sharrelle Barber applauds the new effort, but still wonders why it took the city so long.

BARBER: People have felt in community like there hasn't been a plan, that people have been more reactive than proactive, especially considering the devastation that they've experienced during this pandemic. So this vaccine distribution or equity seems like an afterthought.

FELDMAN: It's only been open a few days, but so far the new clinic does seem to be reaching the right people. City officials say during its first weekend, more than half of those vaccinated there were Latino.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Feldman in Philadelphia.

SHAPIRO: This story was part of a reporting partnership with WHYY and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ MAKO'S "LOOK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.