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Littwin: COVID vaccine scarcity isn’t the only problem. There’s also vaccine inequality.

The causes of distribution inequality range from ZIP code to race to ethnicity to computer access to you name it. Sometimes the only solution is dumb luck.


We have seen significant changes in our lives in COVID world, in which “wear the damn mask” is now joined by “where’s the damn vaccine?”

The good news on the COVID-vaccination front is that Joe Biden has responded to criticism that his goal of one million shots a day is not nearly good enough. He announced Tuesday that the government is close to a deal to purchase an additional 200 million doses from Pfizer and Moderna — enough, Biden said, to be able to vaccinate as many as 300 million Americans by late summer or early fall. The bad news is that while Biden promised governors more doses, we shouldn’t expect the pace of vaccinations to gain much speed in the short term because, well, it seems they still have to produce the vaccine. 

We’re in need of good news in a country in which mask wearing and social distancing — still a necessity until we’ve reached something like herd immunity — remain a political issue, as if science were either Republican or Democrat. And in which money necessary to reopen schools is yet another political issue, as if caring for kids were either Republican or Democrat.

Mike Littwin

And there’s the danger of the new COVID variants and the efficacy of the vaccines in fighting them off. As of next week, all foreign travelers arriving in the United States will need proof of a negative COVID test. The problems don’t end there. There is also a not-yet-resolved problem of unequal distribution of the vaccine.

Is the inequality problem racism? Is it classism? Is it ZIP-codeism? Is it computer access or maybe computer savviness?

Is it educational attainment? Is it socioeconomic status? For some communities, is it a well-earned lack of trust in medical science? For others, is it a well-earned lack of trust in the government?

Is it anti-vaxxers? Is it waiting-to-see-how-it-turns-out-for-everyone-else vaxxers? Is it insufficient planning by the public health community, who say, and I don’t really doubt them, they’ve been working hard on this all along and are redoubling their efforts? 

Or is it some of all of the above?

If you read Jen Brown’s and John Ingold’s Tuesday piece in The Sun on the uneven distribution of COVID vaccines in Denver, you know why I’m asking the questions. 

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The Sun story sets the stage in the starkest terms. In the Central Park neighborhood, once known as Stapleton, 461 of 1,000 residents over 70 have received their first dose. In Wash Park, it’s 247. 

But in Sun Valley, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Denver, those age 70 or over come in 42 out of 1,000. In Elyria-Swansea, a heavily Latino neighborhood, it’s 119. And here’s one of the most telling statistics: In the latest data from Elyria-Swansea, the positivity rate there is 10.6%. In Central Park, it’s 3%.

This is no less than a scandal, but one in which it’s hard to pin down a villain. We know that the Black community has suffered a long history of abuse in medical situations, going back to the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which Black men, many with syphilis, believed they were getting medical care. In actuality, they were just being observed and weren’t being treated at all. 

READ: More columns by Mike Littwin.

The study began in 1932 and didn’t end until it was exposed in the press 40 years later. Later studies have shown unequal treatment by race in medical outcomes. And you probably know of the Henrietta Lacks story. And so what we have is called vaccine hesitancy, which you see playing out even in hospital settings where more Black workers than white workers are rejecting the vaccines.

And, of course, there’s a significant undocumented Latino population that doesn’t trust government agencies. Hopefully, with a new administration, that might change somewhat.

This is obviously not simply a Colorado problem, but a national one. Just as one example, I saw a story in the Baltimore Sun that of the first doses in Maryland, 16% went to African-Americans and nearly 5% for Latinos. The problem is that African-Americans make up 33% of the state population and Latinos make up 11%. I used to live in Baltimore, so I looked it up. You can find similar results in cities and states everywhere.

And there is, as you’d expect, an inequality problem globally as well. Poorer countries aren’t getting their share of the vaccines, which is not only a matter of unfairness but also shortsightedness. If populations with less access to vaccines are hit harder by COVID variants, that would, of course, help spread the variants worldwide. It’s just not rich countries, but some rich people. In a story reminiscent of the college scandal, where some rich people have gone to jail for bribery in college admissions, there’s a story of a couple from Vancouver who chartered a plane to Yukon to try to get hold of vaccine doses set aside for Indigenous elders.

When supply outstrips demand, all things are possible, many of them ugly. Many of you have spent long hours in lines to get the vaccine. It’s a strange time when some people are waiting hours to get vaccinated while others refuse the vaccine. It’s clear what needs to happen — mass vaccinations and the hope that the vaccines work on however the virus mutates.

On the other hand, sometimes all you need is dumb luck. I have firsthand knowledge of this. Last month, when people over the age of 70 became eligible, I looked around for a vaccine. I knew eventually there would be an advantage to old age. Anyway, I’m computer savvy. I’ve got a good ZIP code. But I was still having trouble finding anything when I received an unexpected call from my pharmacy.

It turned out the pharmacist had gone for a training and had scored a small batch of vaccine. She called some of her eligible customers. Sadly, I have an autoimmune disease that requires a number of daily medications, so I am a good customer, meaning I’m there all the time.

I got my first shot a little over three weeks ago. I just got my second shot Saturday. The second shot is supposed to be problematic. Many people get a one-day case of fever and chills because antibodies have built up. I got nothing more than a little site soreness, meaning either that my antibodies aren’t working or I just got lucky. I’m willing to believe in luck here.

As I said the other day, the only side effect I’ve experienced is the smile on my face, which you may not be able to see because as medically advised, even with the vaccines, I’m still wearing a mask. You’ll just have to believe me. It’s there.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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