25 Investigates: Vaccination rates in low-income communities still lag behind the pack

LAWRENCE, Mass. — 25 Investigates told you about a major gap in vaccination rates between wealthy and low income communities in Massachusetts.. Since then, the state altered its vaccine approach. We wanted to know if it’s working. Anchor investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh found some of our poorest communities are still lagging behind the pack. Critics of the state’s rollout say this outcome was entirely predictable.

Those low income communities were also places hit hardest by COVID-19. Through our reporting, 25 Investigates found mass vaccination sites that required online appointments left many in those communities with an uphill battle to access their shot. There were language barriers as well as struggles with internet access, transportation, and the ability to take time off from work. In May, the Baker administration announced it would shift away from the large scale mass sites. By mid-July all will be closed. Instead, the state is steering heavily toward community-based efforts, particularly in 20 communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

Efforts include mobile vaccination clinics, walk-in clinics and a home-bound program. But, some say the state still isn’t doing enough.

In Lawrence, we visited a mobile clinic on Saratoga Street. It was used for COVID-19 testing. Now, it’s for anyone who needs the vaccine, no appointment needed.

“The fact that there’s a mobile clinic here in Lawrence, it’s great for locals, it’s great for people that couldn’t have access to it before,” said Jazmine Garcia, a Lawrence resident.

Lawrences is one of the communities hit hardest by the pandemic in Massachusetts. The city spent a record 22 weeks in the ‘red’ due to rates of the virus. It’s also one of the state’s poorest cities, with a median income of approximately $44,613 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And, only 47% of residents have their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Erika Alvarado, a nurse at Lawrence General Hospital says turnout at the mobile clinic varies day to day and hour to hour.

“So it all depends,” Alvarado said. “We can have little to three people to twenty-five. It all varies from the locations we’re at.”

And that’s OK. The goal is to be where the people are and improve access for people who want the vaccine.

“I lost my ID. So to be honest about it, at the beginning they wasn’t taking any patients without ID, said Hector Baez, a Lawrence resident. That wasn’t an issue for him at the mobile clinic.

“I really don’t go out of the house much and this was the easiest. I haven’t seen a walk in or anywhere close enough to get the vaccination right away,” Nicole Waite, a Wareham resident.

We met Waite at the Stop & Shop in New Bedford in late May when they were offering people walk-in appointments in which they could chose the vaccine they wanted to get.

Waite said she’s the last person in her household to get vaccinated. In fact, she said she wasn’t planning to until she saw the clinic at her grocery store pharmacy.

“I was worried about all the negative things that were coming out,” Waite said. ‘But, after seeing my mom and dad and my kids get it, I thought it was time for me to step up and do my job.”

“New Bedford with a median income of about $46,321 has the lowest first dose vaccination rate in the state at just 43%, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

New Bedford and Lawrence are both part of a trend that 25 Investigates first revealed in the spring. Low income communities continue to have the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the state.

25 Investigates examined data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the U.S. Census Bureau and found the 10 towns with the highest median incomes in the state have a first dose vaccination rate average of 77%. The ten lowest are at 48%.

On April 29, we brought the findings to Gov. Charlie Baker.

“That’s why we created the mobile program and the homebound program,” said Baker on April 29.

“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 asked.

“Well we’re obviously going to do whatever we need to do to find opportunities to vaccinate people where they are,” Baker said.

Four days after that interview, the state announced it would pivot to a more community based approach. But it’s not a quick fix.

“So it is going to take months to narrow that inequity between communities that have been hardest hit, and are predominantly poor, and people of color,” said Carlene Pavlos, the executive director of the Mass Public Health Association, a statewide advocacy organization that champions public health with a focus on equity.

Pavols said the vaccine rollout, with a focus on mass vaccination sites and online appointments gave an advantage to people who know how to get in line first.

25 Investigates also found some of the new initiatives are helping some of the low-income, hard hit communities close the vaccination wealth gap.

We we visited Chelsea back in April, they had a first dose rate of just 38%. But after expanding access and meeting people where they are, Chelsea is at 67%.

And, Pavlos says until all communities in Massachusetts are vaccinated equally, we can’t declare victory over the virus.

“This is not yet in our rearview mirror,” Pavlos said. “We’re still hoping to see more investment in community leaders and community-based organizations that can engage community residents in the vaccine.”

Some of that continued investment did come on Tuesday. The Baker administration announced $3.2 million in grants for community based vaccine initiatives. We asked the Baker Administration about the vaccine equity initiatives. A spokesperson sent the following statement:

“A core principle of the state’s vaccine program has been to address vaccine equity and access for the Commonwealth’s most disproportionately impacted communities. Today, 80% of adult residents have received at least a first dose, and while our vaccination rates among Black and Hispanic residents are almost double the national average, there is more work to do. The Administration has invested over $30 million in vaccine equity initiatives to increase vaccine awareness and access through outreach efforts like door-to-door canvassing and community based vaccination clinics, and recently announced a focus on increasing targeted, community-based clinics to meet residents where they are and to eliminate any barriers to vaccination. These targeted initiatives are working, and it shows; for the last two weeks, none of the Commonwealth’s equity communities were identified as high risk, and as of last week, for the first time since August 2020, there are no high-risk communities.”

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