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One month in, racial disparities have begun to emerge in Colorado coronavirus vaccination rates

Black and Hispanic Coloradans are less likely to be vaccinated than whites, though the data are incomplete

Vail Health Hospital pharmacy technician Rob Brown practices measuring the exact dosage for a mock COVID-19 vaccine in the sterile compounding room in the pharmacy on December 8, 2020 in Vail, Colorado. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, Pool)
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White Coloradans are more likely to have received a coronavirus vaccine than those who are Black or Hispanic, according to new data released Friday by state health officials.

The numbers show that white Coloradans have accounted for about 68% of those receiving at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine so far. That is roughly equal to white representation in the state’s overall population.

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Black and Hispanic Coloradans, however, have been under-represented in vaccinations so far, accounting for 1.8% and 4.3%, respectively. Nearly 4% of Colorado’s population is Black, and nearly 22% is Hispanic.

The numbers are incomplete because some vaccine providers had not been recording race data. As a result, nearly 22% of vaccinations given so far are recorded as having “unknown” race or ethnicity — meaning it’s possible the state’s racial and ethnic disparities could be even wider than the new data show. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has now begun asking providers to collect the information.

“It’s clearly unacceptable to have this kind of disparity here in Colorado,” Gov. Jared Polis said Friday during a news conference.

Polis and state health officials have repeatedly talked about the importance of making sure vaccine distribution is equitable. On Friday, Rick Palacio, an adviser to Polis and the co-chair of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Taskforce, said the state has set a goal of holding pop-up vaccination clinics in half of Colorado’s top 50 census tracts for high-density, low-income minority populations.

“Of course, that is just a floor,” he said. “We hope that we can reach as many of those top census tracts as we possibly can.”

The state has worked with local authorities to hold clinics in the San Luis Valley towns of Center and San Luis, as well as another vaccine clinic at a historic Black church in north Denver. In San Luis, 200 residents age 70 or older were vaccinated — in a town with a population of only 644.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

But local health officials have begun expressing concerns that communities of color are being left behind in the state’s vaccination drive. On Friday, the Metro Denver Partnership for Health — an organization led by local public health agencies in the metro area — called for federal and state officials to prioritize equity at all levels of the vaccine distribution process. The partnership said in a news release that local health officials have “identified some early indications of inequities in vaccine uptake.”

“COVID-19 has highlighted and magnified health disparities and inequities in our region,” Dr. John Douglas, the executive director of Tri-County Health Department and the partnership’s co-chair, said in a statement. “We will work proactively, intentionally and collaboratively in the coming months to set a different course for the next phase of this pandemic.”

The partnership called for using data to identify under-vaccinated neighborhoods and expanding vaccination sites to target those areas. It also called for more tailored communication approaches to reach often-overlooked populations.

In the news conference with Polis, CDPHE executive director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said her agency is working to do exactly those kinds of things. She presented commercials recorded in both English and Spanish that feature Colorado health professionals of color offering reassurance that the vaccines are safe. And she said CDPHE is working to identify neighborhoods that could be “vaccine deserts” because they have no medical facilities or pharmacies where vaccines would traditionally be dispensed.

She also said the state is working on partnerships with the Regional Transportation District and the ride-sharing company Lyft to find ways to help people without access to reliable transportation to get their shot.

“We need to knock down as many barriers as we can,” she said.


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