A fair shot: Oklahoma County gets demographic data on vaccines
The Oklahoma City-County Health Department got its first batch of county-level data last week showing a demographic breakdown for those who have received COVID-19 vaccines.
Local health officials have recognized the need for equity and community outreach in the vaccine distribution process, but until now, didn’t have the data to determine whether their efforts were working.
Phil Maytubby, the city-county health department’s chief operating officer, said the data shows proof of some headway, “but we still have a long way to go.” He shared highlights from the data with The Oklahoman on Thursday.
More than 167,000 doses had been administered in the county as of Feb. 20. Of those who had received their first dose of a vaccine, 60.9% were white, 6.3% were Black, 3.7% were Asian or Pacific Islander, 1.9% were American Indian, 4.5% listed their race as “other,” and 22.7% did not identify their race.
The data also showed 4.2% of those vaccinated with their first dose were Hispanic or Latino, while 62.3% were not. Ethnicity data wasn’t listed for 33.5% of people.
Those percentages stray from demographics for the county from the U.S. Census Bureau, which uses slightly different categories. In Oklahoma County, almost 71% of residents are white, 15.8% are Black, 4.4% are American Indian or Alaska Native, 3.6% are Asian, 0.1% are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders, and 5.4% are two or more races.
The county’s population is nearly 18% Hispanic or Latino, according to census estimates as of 2019.
Because the data only runs only through Feb. 20, it doesn’t include people who were vaccinated last week, when eligibility expanded to people under 65 with certain health conditions as well as teachers and school support staff for grades pre-K through 12th.
There’s also a large swath of “unknowns” in the demographic data: the result of people not filling in race and ethnicity information when they register for a vaccine.
If that data were known, “that's possibly a huge, significant difference within a population,” Maytubby said.
Calls for equity
State Rep. Jason Lowe and other community and elected leaders gathered earlier in the week to call attention to racial disparities in COVID-19 vaccine distribution statewide. Lowe said he organized the event after seeing access and hesitancy issues surrounding the vaccine in his district.
His office has fielded hundreds of calls from people looking for vaccinations, he said. Some of his constituents have had issues with internet access or difficulty navigating online systems, hampering their search for a shot.
Lowe said he believes partnerships with community organizations and Black churches will be key.
“Right now, the most important thing is the partnership with the Black church,” he said. “Generally, we’re behind: only 3% of individuals who have been vaccinated are African American, so I don't think we're at a point to say things are working, but we have an opportunity for it to work.”
He said he also wants to see more messaging targeted to the African American community about how the vaccine is safe and can save lives.
John A. Reed Jr., longtime pastor of Fairview Missionary Baptist Church, joined Lowe in calling for equity in vaccine distribution this week. His church worked with the local health department to set up a vaccine clinic at Douglass High School during the week, vaccinating members of his church and others.
“There were so many African American people who received vaccinations that day that otherwise wouldn't have received it,” Reed said, adding that some had previously tried for over a month to secure an appointment without success. “We were able to work with those parishioners of our churches and other people in the community and provide those shots for them.”
Reed said he hopes his church and others can put on regular vaccination clinics in the future.
Raul Font, president of the Latino Community Development Agency, said people in the Latino community have also faced hurdles in getting vaccinated, centering on language barriers and trust.
“We English-speakers are having tons of trouble trying to navigate to a system that apparently is not friendly in English,” he said. “Imagine those that don't speak the language.”
The state’s vaccine portal, for example, is not available in Spanish or other languages besides English, though a note on its FAQ page says “an upcoming update of the system will have Spanish capabilities.” The state has guides and videos in Spanish about navigating the portal.
Other issues center on having to travel to vaccine sites where people may be unfamiliar or feel uncomfortable.
“We're not seeing them in areas where we think the majority of the people are going to feel comfortable going to,” Font said, suggesting vaccination sites at schools, community agencies, churches and pharmacies — places people in the community already go to and trust.
Locally, the Oklahoma City-County Health Department has tried to address barriers to vaccine access, said Maytubby, the department’s chief operating officer.
He said whenever the health department hosts large clinics, they’ll set aside appointments and ask churches in Black and Hispanic communities to help fill those slots.
To help people who may not have internet access or may not be tech-savvy, calling 211 can be a resource to get information about registering for the vaccine. The city-county health department gets calls routed from 211 to add people to a “no-tech list” to notify them later of available appointments.
Transportation is another hurdle, Maytubby said.
“Not everybody also has a ride,” he said. “We've been looking at trying to find different ways to either assist them to get to the vaccination sites, or at some point, we will start going out in the community — we just have to make sure we have enough vaccine before we can do that.”
Maytubby said even before the health department had access to county-level breakdowns for who is getting vaccinations, staff knew the demographics of the area well and had a plan for where to go, but good data will only help.
“We have a good methodology, and we have a good plan to ensure that we do get equitable distribution. Now, it's just a matter of making it all happen,” he said. “We'll have better data to measure our effectiveness ... and that's why we're very happy to be seeing this data.”