Courtesy of City of San Antonio
In San Antonio and across the country, COVID-19 has taken its heaviest toll on communities of color.
But state data suggests that, nine weeks into the vaccine rollout, white people in Bexar County are receiving shots at a higher rate than any other ethnic group — even though they represent just over a quarter of the population.
Further complicating matters, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) only last week began requiring every vaccination site to collect race and ethnicity data. That means there’s no such information for more than 45% of the people who received vaccinations in Bexar county.
As of Monday, February 8, just under 19% of the people who have received at least one vaccine dose in Bexar County were Latino and 2% were Black, according to state numbers available on Monday, February 8. Whites, on the other hand, accounted for more than 24% of vaccinations.
Even though the data are incomplete, they point to stark racial disparities in vaccine access, said Rogelio Sáenz, a University of Texas at San Antonio demography professor. He also warned that the true numbers could paint an even grimmer picture.
“There needs to be a greater effort to go out to the people who are most affected,” said Sáenz, who’s been tracking local and state vaccination rates. “We really need to pick this up more.”
Further shoring up the state data, local health officials presented data at Thursday’s city council meeting showing that more residents of San Antonio’s affluent North Side had received vaccine doses than those of any other part of the city. Roughly half of the city’s COVID-19 fatalities have been among residents of the predominantly Latino South and West sides.
Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be employed in front-line jobs such as retail and restaurants and they’re also more likely to live in large households, both of which increase potential exposure to COVID-19, health experts say.
Further, those groups face higher rates of preexisting conditions that raise the risk they face if infected with COVID-19. Plus, they’re less likely than whites to have health insurance.
The big picture
The local disparities appear to mirror state and national trends.
Across Texas, Latinos account for slightly less than 11% of those receiving at least one vaccine shot, while Blacks account for around 4%. Whites represent nearly 30% of Texas’ total, and there’s no race or ethnicity data for another 41%.
Numbers from other states suggest that people of color are being vaccinated nationwide at rates that don’t reflect the elevated danger they face from the virus. But, again, a lack of data collection doesn’t provide a complete picture, experts caution.
A late-January analysis by healthcare policy nonprofit KFF found that the share of vaccinations among Black people is smaller than their share of cases in 16 of the 17 states that report race data on those who receive vaccinations. Black residents’ share of vaccinations is also smaller than their share of deaths in all but two of those states.
Health experts have repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of data, especially in light of high rates of vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans. As early as last April, the American Medical Association began calling on federal and state agencies to collect and share all race and ethnicity data related to the pandemic.
San Antonio Metro Health officials say increasing inoculations among Black and Latino residents is a priority.
Metro Health is using robocalls and postcards to raise awareness of the vaccination process, and 15 workers now conduct door-to-door sign-up efforts in underserved communities, according to Dr. Anita Kurian, assistant director of San Antonio Metro Health.
More programs, potentially including online town halls, are in the works.
“That outreach is going to go on year-round,” Kurian said.
What’s more, the city last week kicked off an effort to administer thousands of vaccinations to homebound seniors through a partnership with Meals on Wheels and the San Antonio Housing Authority.
Still, observers caution that San Antonio and other cities are hindered by Texas’ ability to control access to further vaccine doses.
Last month, the state threatened to halt Dallas’ vaccine access after officials there rolled out a plan to prioritize getting shots to people in its most vulnerable neighborhoods. Ultimately, the city scrapped the effort.
UTSA’s Sáenz said San Antonio’s long history of generational poverty will require it to innovate. If local leaders want to make progress against the pandemic, they should focus on making sure vaccinations are available to areas that are hardest hit.
“The pandemic has made it clear we’re all interconnected,” he said.
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