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Wisconsin Tackles Racial Disparities In Vaccine Distribution

Maayan Silver
As of February 11, 2021, the city of Milwaukee's Black population makes up 41% of the COVID deaths and 29.4% of the COVID cases in the city.

Updated Feb. 17 at 12:28 p.m.

Wisconsin's Department of Health Services has announced a $3.1 million grant program to promote equity in the state's COVID-19 vaccine distribution. 

In a joint statement, Milwaukee Aldermen Cavalier Johnson and Khalif J. Raine and Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic praised the state agency for committing to help make the process more equitable. 

“We want to thank DHS for recognizing the equity issues that exist, and initiating this program that will engage local partners who know their communities best,” said the statement. “Throughout the pandemic, communities of color have experienced higher rates of COVID-19 related infections, hospitalizations and death, and thus far have also received a disproportionately lower share of vaccines. This must change and engaging community-based organizations in the process can be an important part of the puzzle.”

Applications for the grants will be open until March 19 at 4 p.m.

Original Story

Around Wisconsin, and in Milwaukee County, there’s a racial disparity in vaccination rates. As of Friday, 10% of white Wisconsinites had been vaccinated, compared to just 3% of Black and Hispanic residents.

The state is honing in on some ways it can change that.

Wisconsin’s legislative Black Caucus held a town hall on Zoom Monday to take up racial health care disparities during COVID-19 and the importance of the COVID-19 vaccination.

Karen Timberlake, interim secretary of the state Department of Health Services, laid out some possible reasons for the disparities.

“I think it is a reasonable hypothesis that we maybe have ... white people over-represented in health care workers as compared to people from other backgrounds,” she said.

Health care workers were among those near the front of the line for getting the vaccine.

Timberlake added another possible reason for the disparity: the fact that older residents also were near the front of the line. She says Wisconsin’s older population is more heavily white.

And she said there is systemic racism, disparities in where good health care infrastructure is in the state and whether the state is making good information available to the public.

Dr. Tito Izard agreed there’s disproportionately few Black American physicians in Wisconsin. He runs the MLK Heritage Health Center and was a health expert at the town hall.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach / WUWM
The MLK Heritage Health Center is located at 2555 N. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Dr in Milwaukee.

Izard also said the initial rollout of the vaccine considered equality, not equity, meaning that it hadn’t considered factors that make Black and brown communities socially vulnerable. He said that’s starting to change.

“And Secretary Timberlake has mentioned now the corrections that are being made by looking at the socially vulnerable index formula and such, I just would encourage, because it's still not clear to me yet whether the SVI actually because it considers things like housing and poverty, but it's not certain whether it actually includes the disproportionate hospitalization or mortality of ethnic minority populations. Is that specifically in the SVI formula? So that would be one thing to look at," he said.

Izard also said at least initially, the vaccine rollout failed to account for disparities in access to transportation and technology.

He said no one should be talking about vaccine hesitancy at this point, because right now there’s an abundance of African Americans who want to be vaccinated.

Izard said a conversation may arise in the springtime, once all the initial people who want to be vaccinated receive the vaccine and when later groups interpret that first wave’s experience.

Timberlake said the state is noting in the disparities in vaccine rates and is taking action.  

“We're not looking for disparities, just to say, 'Oh, I guess that, you know, we have a disparity' and, you know, move along and not change anything, we need to use this data to cause us to ask ourselves, 'What can we be doing differently and better at a state level? What can we be doing differently and better with our local partners to close gaps and make sure we get this vaccine out absolutely everywhere?'” she said.

Timberlake said the state is working to make sure all federally qualified health centers, free clinics, and tribal health clinics all get 100% of the vaccine that they've requested.

“As you heard me say, when you've got the potential to give 300,000 shots in a week, and we can only give out 90,000 doses, you can well imagine that there are a lot of people who asked for a much greater allocation than we are able to give. Given the communities that these types of vaccinators serve, we feel that it's really an important strategy to promote equity to continue to make sure we can meet their full allocation requests," she said.

Timberlake said she’s been pleased with the state’s network of nearly 1,000 “vaccinators,” or entities that distribute the vaccine, and she added that the state also has mobile vaccination units.

“And so communities across the state are able to request a National Guard-supported mobile vaccination team that can help us even further extend availability of vaccine into a neighborhood, say in the city of Milwaukee or into a part of a county that is more rural where folks would have to drive a very long way to get to what would otherwise be another place to get the vaccine," she expained.

The state will provide funding for neighborhood organizations to help deliver facts and dispel myths about the vaccine. It will also push additional outreach dollars to organizations with which it already has contracts.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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