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Closing The Vaccination Gap Between Latino And White Americans

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

About half of the U.S. population is now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and key to that figure is a surge in Latinos in the U.S. getting a vaccine. That group had been trailing the vaccination rate for white people in the U.S. by 9%. And now, that gap has been cut in half. But the gains are spotty, and there are places that still report big gaps between Latino and white people. NPR member station reporters in Texas and Arizona are here now to tell us what they're seeing - Ashley Lopez at KUT in Austin and Katherine Davis-Young at KJZZ in Phoenix.

Welcome.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Hey there.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: Hi. So, Ashley, let's start with you. Tell us what's going on in Austin right now.

LOPEZ: So for weeks now in Austin, about 19% of the total number of city residents who have been vaccinated have been Latino, even though they make up about a third of the population. And this is a worry because Latinos have been more likely to be hospitalized and die from the virus. They also make up a disproportionate share of Austin's frontline workers. This means they're less likely to get paid time off to get a vaccine or time to recover from its side effects. Some folks work multiple jobs and simply don't have time to even figure out where to get a vaccine. And Paul Saldana with the Austin Latino Coalition told me about another issue. About 20% of Latinos here don't have access to Wi-Fi or the internet, which early on was a big issue because online was the main way to get an appointment for the vaccine.

PAUL SALDANA: So, you know, any time you have a system that's based on the internet or Wi-Fi, inevitably our people are going to have challenges.

LOPEZ: So at least in the Austin area, this remains a problem. But I will say the state as a whole looks a little different. According to state health officials, about 40% of the people who have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine are Latino. That's up from about 26% in February.

CHANG: Oh, that's so interesting, that discrepancy between Austin and the rest of the state. And, Katherine, what's the story in Arizona?

DAVIS-YOUNG: Well, there's been a pretty wide gap between white and Latino vaccination rates here since the beginning, and it actually continues to grow, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Right now, about 40% of white Arizonans have had at least one dose of a vaccine, but among Latino Arizonans, it's only about 19%. That's a much larger gap than nationwide. And Arizona is far behind the Latino vaccination rates in neighboring New Mexico or California.

CHANG: So let me just make sure I understand. Is it the same story in Arizona as it is in Texas, this idea that people are having trouble not only making time for it but getting to vaccination sites?

DAVIS-YOUNG: Well, it seems that way. Several people I've spoken with have pointed out to me that the state has really emphasized these big mass vaccination sites, drive-through style at football stadiums and fairgrounds. More than a quarter of all vaccines in our state have been administered at those big sites. But only 7% of people who have gone to those sites have been Hispanic or Latino. Dr. Joanna Andujar is with Mountain Park Health in Maryvale, which is a predominantly Latino section of Phoenix.

JOANNA ANDUJAR: A lot of our community doesn't have a car. They have to depend on buses, public transportation and walking here. And it's tough when they also have to work.

CHANG: Well, then what's being done to get around those sorts of barriers and to make it easier for people to actually get vaccinated?

DAVIS-YOUNG: Well, Arizona's State Health Department director, Dr. Cara Christ, says the state is making efforts to reach lower-income Latino communities.

CARA CHRIST: We are doing telephonic town halls in both English and Spanish. We are doing door-to-door canvassing, yard signs.

DAVIS-YOUNG: The health department has also hired taxis to drive people to a state-run vaccination site, and they've coordinated with Spanish-speaking church leaders to promote vaccination. They say those efforts are getting some results, but some people I've talked to just say these things didn't happen early enough. For example, the state health department vaccination registration website wasn't translated into Spanish until two months into the state's vaccination campaign.

CHANG: Wow. OK, well, what about Austin, Ashley? How much of an effort does there seem to be to get around these obstacles to try and boost the vaccination rate for Latinos?

LOPEZ: Well, you know, local officials in Austin have said they are really concerned about the Latino vaccination rates. And they're working on creating more targeted events in those communities, but Paul Saldana with the Austin Latino Coalition says this is work that really should have been done months ago.

SALDANA: I think we've done a poor job in making sure that we've reached our vulnerable populations during this COVID pandemic in giving them equitable access to the vaccines.

LOPEZ: Saldana says his group, which typically advocates for Latino families in Austin, is now pulling together vaccine events of their own to try to get Latinos more shots.

CHANG: I mean, how much do both of you feel that public officials are taking responsibility for these obstacles that still exist?

LOPEZ: Well, in Austin, our mayor pro tem, Natasha Harper-Madison, acknowledges that the numbers should be better and should have been better earlier. She says health officials need to be more proactive with messaging, and they need to reach out to more communities with those lower vaccination rates.

NATASHA HARPER-MADISON: We can't be passive about it. We can't just put out the word and hope that arms will come to us. We have to go to where the arms are in a lot of ways. So I think we need to be considerably more proactive, more full-court press.

CHANG: Well, what about vaccine hesitancy? Are we seeing more hesitancy among Latino people than, say, among people in the U.S. generally?

DAVIS-YOUNG: This is Katherine in Phoenix. So, in fact, there was a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll that showed among unvaccinated people, Latinos were more than twice as likely than whites to say they wanted the vaccine as soon as possible. And a researcher I spoke to there says it's the obstacles like transportation and language barriers that really do play a much larger role here.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, as we continue to track progress, I mean, we should note that race and ethnicity data around vaccines is not perfect. Let's just talk about those imperfections.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Right. Nationally, the CDC says that race or ethnicity of people being vaccinated is only known about half the time. And most of that racial and ethnic data is self-reported. In Arizona, for example, just about 30% of race data for vaccines was either marked other or was unknown. And not every state reports that information in the same way.

CHANG: That is Katherine Davis-Young at KJZZ in Phoenix and Ashley Lopez with member station KUT in Austin.

Thank you to both of you.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Thank you.

LOPEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.