Racial Disparities Are Prevalent in U.S. Vaccination Rates

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

As COVID-19 vaccines emerge, a greater issue is coming to light: vaccine disparities among racial groups, which have always been a prevalent problem as marginalized communities cannot access vaccines and suffer as a result.

Racial Inconsistencies in Flu Shot Distribution

Known for infiltrating immune systems once winter arrives, influenza is a potentially deadly virus that previously wreaked havoc on American lives before the introduction of a vaccine in the 1940s. Doctors and healthcare workers relentlessly push flu vaccination because they understand how life-saving vaccines are. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), since 2010, 12,000-61,000 people have died each year due to influenza. Furthermore, in 2019 half of all Americans received their flu shot, which saved 3,500 lives, around 10 lives per day during flu season.

While Americans may understand the importance of getting vaccinated, racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States have low access. Those who aren’t able to receive vaccines are more likely to come from Black and brown communities. As per the CDC, among adults in the 2019-2020 flu season, 53% of non-Hispanic white people received their flu shot, while only 41% of non-Hispanic Black people and 38% of Hispanic and Latinx people got vaccinated due to lack of access.

In a 2011 study, the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that Hispanic and Latinx people have higher chances of being exposed to influenza due to their environment and occupations. Hispanics and Latinxs are more likely to work and live in crowded areas with lots of human interactions, which heightens the risk of spreading viruses. Thus, Hispanics and Latinxs desperately need influenza vaccination, yet in the U.S., they’re the least likely group to receive their flu shots.

Additional Vaccine Discrepancies

The influenza vaccine is not the only treatment that struggles to reach minorities. Other vaccines, such as the DPT/DTaP shot, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough), also have racial disparities in vaccination rates. The CDC states that DPT/DTaP vaccination coverage was “significantly lower” in non-Hispanic Black children in comparison to non-Hispanic white children in 16 of the 17 years during 1995-2011.

Additionally, the pneumococcal vaccine, which protects against any disease caused by streptococcus pneumonia bacteria, is inaccessible to various individuals who are a part of racial and ethnic minority groups. This immunization method is recommended to infants below the age of two, adults over the age of 65, and any persons over the age of two with certain medical conditions. An NIH study showed that pneumococcal vaccine coverage among high-risk adults aged 19-65 was 21.4% for non-Hispanic whites, 19.7% for non-Hispanic blacks, 13.8% for Hispanics, and 13.2% for Asians. Meanwhile, coverage in adults older than 65 was 64.0% for non-Hispanic whites, 46.1% for non-Hispanic blacks, 43.4% for Hispanics, and 41.3% for Asians. Even though this vaccine is essential to high-risk pneumonia and other similar illnesses, racial discrepancy on receives it is still extensive.

White Communities Receive More Vaccinations Despite Anti-Vaxx Biases

Vaccine disparities may be tied to white communities prioritizing vaccination over people of color. However, a study performed by the NIH shows that areas that host a greater amount of white people and higher income experience more anti-vaccine sentiment than minority communities. Although white people are more likely to opt-out of vaccination, they still have higher rates of inoculation. Thus, a lower number of white people are able to better obtain vaccines compared to their minority counterparts due to better accessibility.

Factors That Lead to Inequity, Easily Implementable Solutions

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals that age, sex, education, and health insurance are independent factors that are partially responsible for inequities. There are lots of components to evaluate when attempting to close racial disparities, but there are also simple solutions that everyone can try.

For instance, the NIH found that a factor that contributes to the inequity of vaccination, specifically between white and Black people, is registration to online patient portals. Hence,  improving access to patient portals and vaccine enrollment services will likely resolve some discrepancies. Additionally, various drug stores provide free flu shots that are compatible with most insurances, diminishing gaps in vaccination rates. Understanding what groups are most at risk and helping them obtain resources not commonly available will aid everyone as illnesses become less dangerous.

Disparities in Current COVID-19 Vaccination Rates

Finally, racial inequities in COVID-19 vaccination rates mirror those in other vaccination rates. The CDC finds that from data of over 43 million people who have received at least one dosage of the COVID-19 vaccine, race/ethnicity was known for 54.4%. White people accounted for 64.1% of vaccinations while Hispanics, Black people, and Asians combined accounted for 20.1%. During this critical time, it’s imperative for people to receive COVID-19 vaccination. However, racial barriers blocking access to vaccine sites have proven to be extensive and prevalent.

Through Teen Lenses: “What factors do you think contribute to vaccine accessibility?”

“I think income definitely contributes to vaccine accessibility, meaning the rich have easier access while the poor have to wait in line. Because income difference can be caused by racial prejudices, race and where you live can also play a factor. People in populated, wealthy areas have more access to vaccines because transportation might be easier.” Julianne Yao, Sophomore at Thomas Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland
“I think that one of the major factors in vaccine accessibility is your status. We see high ranking politicians receiving the COVID-19 vaccine before health care workers, many of who denied the severity of the coronavirus.” Arielle Chretien, Sophomore at Thomas Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland
“I think that income and jobs definitely contribute to vaccine accessibility. Certain jobs that require more interaction may be prioritized over others, while jobs that don’t require as much interaction won’t have access right away.” Katherine Yu, Sophomore at Thomas Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland