Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley says he knows what must be defeated to get more African Americans vaccinated against the coronavirus: fear.
“People have a fear of the unknown. People don’t know what could happen to them after taking the vaccine,” Neely told Bridge Michigan.
In Genesee County, state data from late May showed that just over 30 percent of residents 18 and older in most of Flint’s majority Black neighborhoods had their first shot, compared to a rate of 46 percent for the county and 51 percent statewide. (The statewide rate is now about 60 percent.)
That pattern follows in other African-American communities in Michigan, from Detroit and Pontiac to Muskegon and Saginaw, highlighting a problem experts say is rooted in access, poverty and distrust of public health officials.
And that’s not the only difference: Data from Michigan’s more than 2,700 census tracts — areas of roughly 4,000 people — shows wide disparities along economic, racial and education lines in the six months since the coronavirus became widely available. While the census tract data set is a few weeks old, health officials say the trends are holding firm.
In the largely white Oakland County suburb of Huntington Woods, 83 percent of adults have a college degree and 97 percent had started the vaccine. The median household income: $140,500.
Just eight miles away in Detroit, on the border of Hamtramck, 16 percent of adults had been vaccinated. There, 3.4 percent of adults have a college degree and the median household income is just under $26,600.
The differences are coming to light as Michigan officials are expanding outreach programs and scrambling to boost vaccination rates that have slowed in recent weeks.
So far, nearly 5 million Michigan residents have received at least one dose but weekly vaccinations have gone from 400,000 a week in April to fewer than 60,000 a week in June. State officials are still hoping that more than 1 million more people will ultimately get the vaccine.
Many of those who are already inoculated are early adopters who needed little persuading, but in many communities, the vaccine remains a hard sell: 19 percent of African Americans in Michigan are taking a “wait and see” approach, compared to 13 percent of white residents, according to polling from KFF, the group once known as the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“We just have to overcome the fear of what this is — and what it is not,” Neeley said.
As COVID-19 cases plummet and masks are discarded, leaders say those still not vaccinated remain at risk — and a larger portion of those who are getting COVID-19 are African Americans, new state data shows.
“It is very concerning and I think a part of (the rising rate of African American infections) is the disparate vaccination rates,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical officer, told Bridge Michigan.
Yes, Trump voters are getting vaccinated
The census tract data, compiled by the state and shared with public health officials, was first reported by mLive.com.
The vaccination rates are as of late May but officials say the trends they reveal remain:
- Income is key: In 226 tracts with a median income above $100,000, 73.7 percent of adults 16 and older had started their vaccination. The rate was 65.9 percent in tracts where median income was $75,000 to $99,000 — and 25.9 percent where incomes were below $25,000.
- So is education: In tracts where at least 30 percent of adults have college degrees, 62 percent are vaccinated, while the rate is 39 percent in tracts where there are less than 15 percent of college grads.
- Politics may matter less: Of the 72 counties that supported former Republican President Donald Trump, 36 had the lowest vaccination rates in the state. Five of the 10 counties with the highest vaccination rates went for Democratic President Joe Biden. That leaves a lot of exceptions, as education and wealth are better indicators of vaccination rates. Leelanau County has the highest vaccination rate in the state (76 percent as of Wednesday) and went for Biden. No. 2 was Grand Traverse (71 percent) and it went for Trump.
The differences can play out within counties.
In Saginaw, vaccination rates are below 35 percent in neighborhoods that are heavily African American. But the rate is just as low in nearby areas where whites are the majority, but few have college degrees and incomes are less than $20,000.
West of Saginaw, in suburban townships, vaccination rates can exceed 65 percent.
In those areas, adults with college degrees are far more common, exceeding 50 percent in parts of Thomas Township, where Trump won.
‘There are still people at risk’
While some vaccination trends are hard to pin down, racial disparities continue to be blatant to public health officials — not only in vaccinations but in new cases.
Although the overall rates are still very low, African Americans are contracting COVID-19 at a rate of 37 cases per million. That’s nearly 70 percent higher than the 22 cases per million for white residents, according to a state report published this week.
Before late March, white residents had been more likely to contract COVID-19 than African Americans, a reversal from the very beginning of the pandemic in 2020, when African Americans, especially in metro Detroit, were hit hard. At one point, Blacks comprised 40 percent of all COVID-19 deaths despite making up just 14 percent of the state population.
But through education and other efforts, those disparities diminished substantially as the virus spread across the state. In the fall and winter surge, during which more than 8,000 died of COVID-19 there were no racial disparities, Khaldun said.
Still, these are hopeful times, she said: For the first time in many months, she recently completed a shift as an emergency room doctor at Henry Ford Hospital and none of the patients had COVID-19.
But that doesn’t mean the virus is gone.
“It’s why we are still focused on getting vaccines into communities,” she said. “The pandemic has not ended, particularly for those who are not vaccinated. There are still people at risk.”
In the first few months of vaccination drives, public health officials blamed the disparity in vaccination rates on access, with many having had a hard time getting to clinics or navigating the largely online appointment systems that many counties have used.
Since vaccinations began, 9 percent of the vaccines have gone to African Americans, who comprise roughly 14 percent of the state population, according to the nonprofit KFF.
Whites make up 75 percent of the state population and have gotten 76 percent of the vaccines.
That disparity is why Detroit and other cities began offering incentives like giving a shot to people who would drive others to get a vaccine, or offering free rides.
In Flint, Neeley said they’re taking mobile clinics into neighborhoods and will provide door-to-door rides for those who want shots.
As recently as April, access to the vaccines remained a big part of the problem, according to Liz Hamel, vice president and director of public opinion and survey research for the KFF, a nonprofit that tracks vaccine hesitancy through polling.
Along with concerns about side effects, Hispanic and Black adults “also expressed concerns about missing work, worries about having to pay out of pocket, not being able to get the vaccine at a trusted place, or having difficulty traveling to a vaccine site,” she wrote in an email to Bridge Michigan.
Now, however, Neeley said access is less an issue — and fear is more of one.
Still, because case counts are so low, there is some time to have the conversations that may persuade someone to get the vaccine.
Khaldun said Henry Ford Hospital recently began offering the vaccine in the emergency room and she was able to convince someone to get it.
“Every day we have someone getting vaccinated, so we’re moving to the goal,” Neeley said. “I’m optimistic about where we’re going to be when we get through this.”