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Experts, Officials Say White Oklahomans Getting COVID Vaccine At Double The Rate Of Black Oklahomans

Oklahoma House of Representatives
Dr. Christopher Harris (left), chief resident of family and preventive medicine at OU College of Medicine, and Floritta Pope, planning coordinator at the Oklahoma State Department of Health office of minority health and health equity, at a Feb. 24 event.

Experts, elected officials and community leaders came together at the Oklahoma Capitol on Wednesday to express concern over the disparity in rates of COVID-19 vaccine administration between Black and white Oklahomans.

"Today, I am calling on the talented public health leaders across this state to increase their outreach efforts to reassure people of color that the vaccine is safe and effective at mitigating the community spread of COVID-19," said Rep. Jason Lowe (D-OKC), who coordinated the press conference.

"I implore the African American community to reach out to the Oklahoma health department and make sure you schedule an appointment to get the vaccine," said Lowe, who himself was hospitalized with COVID-19 last year.

Dr. Priya Samant, chief medical officer at Community Health Centers of Oklahoma, said the data shows a clear break between Black and white Oklahomans.

"According to the epidemiological data by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, which was just released a couple days ago, we have vaccinated, as in Oklahoma, only 14,000 African Americans," Samant said. "That's about 6% of the African American [population].

"Out of those 14,000 individuals, 6,000 have completed the series, so about 3% have completed the series," Samant said. "That's opposed to the white population: 13% of the whites have received their first vaccine, and 6% of the whites have completed their series. So it's about double."

Dr. Christopher Harris, chief resident of family and preventive medicine at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, said it's important to acknowledge that many Black patients have very valid concerns about vaccines and health care in general, going back generations to forced medical experimentation on enslaved women and, more recently, in unethical experimentation on Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, by the federal government.

"Listen with an open mind and with an open heart to those who have concerns, because, as I've just briefly addressed, these concerns are meritful and they have a basis to them," Harris said. 

"If you haven't been vaccinated, get signed up. If you have questions, contact me," Harris said.

Calling the Black church "the foundation of the African American community," Lowe also invited Pastor John Reed of Oklahoma City's Fairview Baptist Church to speak.

"It shouldn't be no problem when it comes to equal distribution of the vaccine," Reed said. "As a matter of fact, actually, because the percentage is higher, we should be first in line. But we're not asking to be first, we're just asking for equal distribution of the vaccine in our communities."

"I'm concerned that every citizen of our city, every citizen of our state, has the vaccination, but I'm really concerned about the African American community, who we know, the media have already told us, that there is not equal distribution," Reed said. 

Floritta Pope, planning coordinator with the OSDH Office of Minority Health and Health Equity, said the state is working to address the disparity.

"Racial disparity in access is big. The willingness to take this vaccine in people of color is big. The number of cases are big," Pope said.

"Oklahoma is making a concerted effort ... to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccine to all communities, making sure that Oklahomans who are Black and brown, Latinx, who live in low-income area, have disabilities, can actually receive this vaccine and it's going to happen at no cost," Pope said.

Pope said she understands the instinct for some individuals to wait until more people receive the vaccine first before they get theirs, but noted that that means delayed benefits for those individuals as well as society.

"We don't want to be, you know, in the point that we're the last to come up, and then our people are dying off because of something we could have had an opportunity to prevent happening," Pope said.

Harris said that while he is patient and understanding regarding concerns, in his practice he has been "very brutally honest" with some individuals, especially younger patients, who don't want to receive the vaccine due to risk of minor side effects.

"Do you want fatigue, arm pain, muscle aches for two to three days, or do you want to be intubated and possibly die?" Harris said. "For the young people, yeah, you may not be hit that hard, but we know many people in the Black community are being raised by their grandparents, or were raised by their grandparents, or have older parents. It's to protect them, as well."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black Americans are roughly three times more likely to be hospitalized due to a COVID-19 infection and twice as likely to die from one as white Americans.

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