The Washington Post: Lack of health services and transportation impede access to vaccine in communities of color


By Akilah Johnson 

Feb. 13, 2021 at 2:26 p.m. PST
 

For decades, Emery Wright filled his prescriptions at the community pharmacy around the corner from his Atlanta home. Now, the drugstore is gone, transformed into a private dialysis clinic that filled one need but created another, with the closest pharmacy a long car ride away.

“It’s not like we needed less pharmacies in the neighborhood,” said Wright, 44, the co-director of Project South, a grass-roots social movement organization. “People should be able to access health care where they live.”

As efforts accelerate nationally to provide the coronavirus vaccine to communities of color, skepticism about the inoculations is often highlighted as a major impediment. But a lack of pharmacies, hospitals, providers and transportation has emerged as an equally significant concern in those communities, where covid-19 has wrought its worst damage.

Public health experts, physicians and civil rights advocates say attention must be paid to the practical barriers that fuel the disparities that have become a hallmark of the American health-care system. If not accounted for, they say, those same obstacles stand to stymie efforts to bridge a growing divide in coronavirus vaccinations.

“Covid is exploiting not just human virus response, but our structured health-care response as well,” said Janice C. Probst, director emerita of the University of South Carolina’s Rural and Minority Health Research Center. “It finds the gaps.”

Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel virus, has killed 1 out of every 645 Black Americans in the past year. But of the 13 million people who received the coronavirus vaccine during the first month shots were available, just 5 percent were Black, limited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. Those figures also show that Latinos, another community disproportionately affected by covid-19, are underrepresented in getting shots. Race and ethnicity data was missing for nearly half of all coronavirus recipients during that time.

Researchers know that inadequate health-care infrastructure, including a lack of pharmacies, is one of the barriers.

One out of eight pharmacies shut their doors between 2009 and 2015, according to a brief 2019 study published in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine. Independent, urban drugstores whose clients are mainly uninsured or publicly-insured patients — two groups who are disproportionately Black and Latino — were most at risk of shuttering, the report said. A separate study shows rural residents are contending with hospital closures and provider shortages that have left 4.4 million residents living in a county without a hospital.