By Howard Koplowitz, Associated Press

Dr. Mary McIntyre, chief medical officer for the Alabama Department of Public Health, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Monday, December 21, 2020 at Baptist South Medical Center in Montgomery. (Governor’s Office/Hal Yeager)

The state’s effort to improve access to the COVID-19 vaccine and build trust in the vaccine for one of Alabama’s most vulnerable groups – Black residents – is lacking for a population nearly three times more likely to die from and almost four times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than whites, advocates say.

“We feel that there are two things that the state could be doing a lot better,” said Bernard Simelton, president of the NAACP. “They need to put more information out about the vaccine and using different media outlets to inform the public about how to sign up, where to sign up,” such as Black churches and radio stations.

“The information has to be disseminated in a manner where people can understand it.”

 No reference point

There is no publicly available data on how many Black Alabamians received the COVID-19 vaccine so far – or any other racial group.

Alabama has not yet made that data public because some vaccine providers are still learning how to input that information into the state system, said Alabama Assistant State Health Officer Dr. Karen Landers. She said the state is still collecting that data, however.

As for when that information will be made public, Landers said: “We do not have a timeline, but are continuing to work toward having the most accurate data on race, prior to visualizing on our dashboard.”

Neighboring Mississippi is one of just 20 states that has made that data public, and the numbers show that Blacks are disproportionately being vaccinated relative to their share of the state population.

Just 18 percent of Black Mississippians have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine despite comprising 37 percent of the state’s population, according to the latest statistics provided by the Mississippi Department of Health. Meanwhile, white Mississippians accounted for 69 percent of COVID-19 vaccinations while representing 59 percent of the state population.

Alabama releasing that data would give a reference point as to whether Blacks are equitably receiving the vaccine and address areas on improving access.

A late start

The Alabama Department of Public Health is working on improving vaccine access among vulnerable populations.

The agency put out a request for proposals, offering $100,000 to $250,000 to groups for increasing vaccine access to Blacks, Hispanic and native American tribes. But decisions on who will be getting that money won’t be made until after March 30 – the deadline for RFPs to be submitted; ADPH could not be reached for comment on when the funds are expected to be doled out.

Advocates say that timeline is too late, given that it’s been known for months that Blacks are 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 and 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized with the virus than whites.

“This is CDC funding — I wish it had come a lot earlier. The activity outline in the request for proposals are the kinds of things that could’ve been planned months ago, so it’s a shame that this strategic thinking wasn’t in place earlier,” said Jim Carnes, policy director for Alabama Arise, which advocates for low-income Alabamians.

“We’re in a position that we’ll take what we can get. It looks like they’re planning to fund activities that really could be critical in addressing the potential disparities in the vaccine, but the timing is, like, two months late. People in organizations are going to have to scramble to get any meaningful traction on trying to prevent the disparities.”

Simelton said the NAACP has taken a proactive approach in disseminating information about the vaccine to the Black community.

The organization is hosting weekly information sessions from Wednesday through March 4 with experts from UAB Hospital and ADPH to address questions and concerns about the vaccine, but he said the state needs to do more on Black outreach.

“There’s still a lot of people we will not reach, and they need to work with the community and community-based groups to help get the word out,” he said. “It should be them reaching out to us. They have a responsibility to reach out to community-based groups to ask what we can do to help get the word out better.”

The state is launching mass vaccination clinics for COVID-19 in Anniston, Auburn, Birmingham, Dothan, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery, Selma, and Tuscaloosa.

‘A record of betrayal’

Even as COVID-19 is more likely to be deadlier for Blacks, less than half of African-Americans say they will get the vaccine once it’s made available to them and 30 percent say they won’t get vaccinated at all, according to a survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Of those who either won’t get the vaccine or are unsure if they want to be immunized, 66 percent said they are concerned about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and 45 percent were concerned that the vaccine would harm them.

In Alabama, the seeds of distrust were sown in the Tuskegee Experiment, the once-secret federal government program where poor Black sharecroppers from Macon County with untreated syphilis were studied under the ruse they were given free medical treatment for their participation.

“We have a record here of betrayal of African-American communities by the government, and we have to bear that in mind as we’re coming in with a mass health program,” Carnes said. “We’ve got to break through some of that skepticism that is very well founded.”

Simelton added, “That’s certainly a tremendous concern, and I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’m not going to be [the government’s] guinea pig… but that’s why it’s important to give the correct information out to the communities.”