25 Investigates: Lowest income towns in Mass. also have lowest vax rates. Why?

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CHELSEA, Mass. — 25 Investigates found in Massachusetts income and vaccination rates go hand in hand. We examined state vaccine data and federal census data and found the wealthiest towns have some of the highest vaccination rates and the poorest have some of the lowest. Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh brought this disparity to Governor Charlie Baker and asked what the state is doing to close the vaccine wealth gap.

The Vaccine Wealth Gap

In communities hit hardest by the pandemic, getting people vaccinated against COVID-19 has been an uphill battle. It’s not just because of vaccine hesitancy, but, some say it’s access.

“There’s a large part of the community that they just can’t get to a mass vaccination site,” says John Chen, founder of Last Mile Delivery Collaborative, which is helping set up walk-up vaccination clinics across eastern Massachusetts.

He says they’re key to improving access to the vaccine.

25 Investigates found vaccine access is an issue in communities across the state. We examined state vaccine data and discovered a vaccine wealth gap. Communities with the lowest median income also have some of the lowest vaccination rates. They’re often areas impacted most by COVID-19.

According to U.S. Census data, the median annual income in Massachusetts is $81,000.

In Lawrence, Worcester, New Bedford, Fall River, Springfield median income is $44,000. On average, only 36% of residents in those communities have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Combined those communities spent 79 weeks in the red for COVID-19 positivity.

Compare that with some of the state’s wealthiest communities: Bolton, Sudbury, Boxford, Lexington, Wellesley. There, the median income is $186,000. On average 62% of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Combined those communities spent only 11 weeks in the red zone.

“It doesn’t surprise,” said Christina Alonso is the director of health equity of Chelsea’s ‘La Colaborativa.’

“The problem with appointments is that they’re not very relevant to essential workers.”

Chelsea has battled both a health crisis and an economic crisis throughout the pandemic. In mid-April, just 38% of residents had received their first shot of the vaccine, according to state data.

Alonso says many of the people who live here lack the technology or language skills to book an appointment online, even for a shot in their own neighborhood.

“There were people that were able to access the appointments on the website, who were they,” Kavanaugh asked.

“We were getting people from other cities outside of the region,” Alonso said. “Maybe they have more flexibility in their schedule, they have a car, they can drive somewhere, you know, maybe they’re working from home.”

The state’s vaccine rollout focused, largely, on people booking appointments online at one of the seven mass vaccination sites. Given the vaccine wealth gap we found, the online rollout may have had an unintended consequence.

The Solutions

25 Investigates brought our findings right to Governor Charlie Baker.

“Well, the first thing I’d say is that one of the ways we compare ourselves on this stuff is how are we doing compared to the rest of the country. And we’re a top-five player in vaccinating our Black residents in terms of the percent of our Black residents who’ve been vaccinated, and we’re just about twice the national average on our Hispanic residents,” Baker said. “What I would say is that we know we have work to do there. But there are a number of issues that have factored into how this has rolled out.”

Namely, Baker said, the vaccine advisory board recommended Massachusetts started first with vulnerable seniors in nursing homes and frontline workers.

“What is your message to those people, those people that want to get vaccinated, just kind of struggling to get there,” Kavanaugh asked.

“Right now, as you pointed out earlier, there are thousands of appointments available every day of the week, usually from somewhere around eight o’clock in the morning until eight or nine o’clock at night,” Baker replied.

“But some can’t get there, even from Chelsea to the Reggie Lewis Center, that might be really tough journey for someone,” Kavanaugh said.

“That’s why we created the mobile program and the homebound program and why we’re doing these pop-up sites and various different locations grow like that,” said Baker.

“I guess I’m wondering though, is do you need to keep shifting even more in that direction? And do you think that the state is,” Kavanaugh.

“Well we’re obviously going to do whatever we need to do to find opportunities to vaccinate people where they are,” Baker said. “We started now to do door-knocking in a lot of those 20 most disproportionately affected communities to encourage folks to come out, and if they are homebound to work with local mobile vaccination providers to go visit them and vaccinate them where they are.”

And this week, just four days after our interview, Governor Baker announced the state would begin phasing out four of the mass vaccination sites in June, focusing even more on a community-based approach to getting people vaccinated. Baker said his goal continues to be ensuring everybody who wants a vaccine in Massachusetts can get one.

“Your income equity issue is spot on because that’s an umbrella,” said Barbara Anthony, is a senior fellow in healthcare policy at the Pioneer Institute. The Massachusetts think tank is now tracking state vaccine equity by race, age, and geography, and found similar disparities.

“We’ve got supply. We have eager people who want to be vaccinated. But now we have to pivot, and pivot strongly to go into communities, communities of color communities of race, low-income communities, and people go where people work.”

Massachusetts’ vaccine equity initiative is paying off in Chelsea. By the end of April, Chelsea’s first dose rate improved from 38% to 50%, in just two weeks. The state is investing $30 million into improving access and reducing hesitancy. It helps fund the work of people who are going door to door, providing information about the vaccine in a way that makes sense to them.

Alonso hopes that other struggling communities can learn from the ongoing success in Chelsea.

“If you decide to get a vaccine, we want you to be able to get that vaccine in half an hour in 20 minutes,” she said.

MA Vaccine Stats:

Massachusetts officials say overall the vaccine rollout has been a success. The CDC reports as of May 2nd, 70% of MA adult residents have had at least one dose. And, Bloomberg reports the Commonwealth is ranked number one for first doses administered per capita amongst the states with 5M people. And, Massachusetts ranks number two for first doses administered per capita amongst all states.

The efforts to vaccinate vulnerable seniors have paid off. The CDC reports at least 87% of MA’s 75+ residents have received the first dose, exceeding the national average of 82%.