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Community leaders highlight racial disparities in Oklahoma’s COVID vaccine distribution

People file in for the Covid-19 vaccination pod at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Norman Hotel & Conference Center on Monday. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]
People file in for the Covid-19 vaccination pod at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Norman Hotel & Conference Center on Monday. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

Community leaders, health experts and elected officials gathered at the Oklahoma State Capitol on Wednesday to call attention to racial disparities in vaccine distribution in the state.

In Oklahoma, the most recent data available from the state health department show about 3% of people who have gotten both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are Black, compared to over 70% who are white. Nationwide data show that Black people are roughly three times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and almost twice as likely to die from the disease.

State Rep. Jason Lowe, a Democrat whose district includes northeast Oklahoma City, called the data alarming.

“I am calling on the talented public health leaders across the state to increase their outreach efforts to reassure people of color that the vaccine is safe and effective at mitigating the community spread of COVID-19,” Lowe said at a news conference. “In order to move forward and repair the damage caused by COVID-19, we must all work together to achieve equitable access to the vaccine.”

State data also show only about 3% of people fully vaccinated are Hispanic or Latino, compared to nearly 72% who aren’t and about 25% for which no ethnicity data was given. State health officials have also urged people to provide information about their race and ethnicity when signing up for a vaccine to improve what demographic data is available.

Floritta Pope, planning coordinator at the state health department’s office of Minority Health and Health Equity, said the state is working to address barriers to vaccine access for communities of color through partnerships with community organizations, local health departments and churches.

She said the state’s primary challenge is supply of the vaccine. There’s still a much greater demand for the vaccine than there are shots available.

“There's a vaccine equity committee that's reaching out now throughout the state to bring partners together to say, ‘Where can we take this vaccine to the people?’ because of access being one of the largest barriers outside of the supply,” she said.

Health leaders also addressed hesitation Black residents may have about getting vaccinated, which they said can often be linked to historical medical mistreatment of Black people in the U.S. They emphasized that the vaccines were safe and that their development hadn't been rushed.

“COVID is ravaging the Black community and claiming more lives than any other race. If you haven't been vaccinated, get signed up,” said Dr. Christopher Harris, Family and Preventive Medicine Chief Resident at OU Health Science Center. “Protect yourself, protect each other.”

Dana Branham

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