Spokane groups work to address racial inequities in vaccine distribution

Feb 15, 2021

Multi-cultural and advocacy groups in Spokane are working with the health district to remove barriers that prevent communities of color from accessing the COVID-19 vaccine.
Credit Courtesy of the Federal Food and Drug Administration

As Washington rolls out the COVID-19 vaccine for its most vulnerable residents, new data shows significant racial disparities in coronavirus immunizations. People at both the local and state levels say they’re taking steps to address those.

One of the biggest vaccine disparities is among those who identify as Hispanic. According to Washington State Health Department data, Hispanics make up 4.7% of people who have at least one dose of the vaccine, but 13.2% of the population.

According to Washington State Department of Health Data, Hispanics are also six times as likely as white people to be hospitalized from complications caused by COVID-19.

A group of Spokane multi-cultural and advocacy groups have been meeting since March to address those issues, and now they hope to make vaccines more accessible. 

One of those groups is Latinos En Spokane, co-founded by Jennyfer Mesa.

Mesa said many Latinos have a long history of distrusting healthcare, or any institution that requires insurance and identification. She said families with mixed immigration status may be especially fearful that a visit to a vaccination site could result in their family being separated.

“If the systems that were already in place before COVID were already a place of distrust, fear and not being accessible to everyone, with COVID, it’s just exacerbated those fears," she said.

Mesa is working to make sure accurate and easily accessible information is available to Latinos in Spokane, and help eventually get clinics up and running that will eventually get vaccines to the Spokane Latino community.

Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have been especially hit hard by the pandemic.  According to state COVID-19 data, six times as many Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders have died from COVID-19 as white people. They are also 10 times as likely to be hospitalized.

That community has also been hard hit in Spokane. At one point during the pandemic, Marshallese people represented about a third of all COVID-19 cases, but are only 1% of the county’s population.

“These aren’t things that come down to character flaws, it comes down to the fact that most of these Marshallese individuals are essential workers (and live) in multi-generational households," said Kiana McKenna, a community organizer for the Pacific Islander Community Assocation in Spokane.

PICA is also a member of the inequities task force.

She said Pacific islanders, especially those from the Marshallese community, often have language barriers and may often not have health insurance. Those factors make them more likely to be seriously impacted by COVID-19, but less likely to get the vaccine.

On Friday the Pacific Islander Community Association put on a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for elders in that community where more than 100 people were vaccinated.

She said even if the vaccine disparities are resolved, the effort to support communities of color’s access to healthcare should continue.

“My advice would just be include us in the conversations, invite us to the table and really look at the way you’re viewing equity," she said. "It’s not equality, it’s equity and its based on who has been affected and how badly they’ve been affected by this virus that’s really ravaged our communities.”

McKenna said she’s hopeful that future efforts to vaccinate or resolve racial disparities in healthcare include advocates every step of the way. Both groups and the NAACP are working toward vaccine clinics in accessible spaces and ensuring accurate information is available in languages spoken in Spokane. 

Spokane’s experience of ensuring people of color receive their share of Covid vaccine is  part of a statewide challenge, says Michele Roberts, the assistant secretary for the Washington Department of Health.

“We do see the same types of inequities that we have seen with Covid disease playing out with Covid vaccine," Roberts said.

Roberts told members of a state House committee on Monday that her agency is providing Covid relief funding for local groups, such as those working with Latinos and Pacific Islanders in Spokane.

Michele Roberts: “To help be kind of navigators within their own communities so that they can have a trusted local person who can help them navigate and find an appointment.”

That’s similar to the approach used in Yakima last spring when the pandemic first hit, says Republican state Representative Alex Ybarra. He says health officials found people who knew the culture, who spoke the language, who talked with migrant workers cycling in and out of the area about Covid rules and what was expected of them.

“I’m seeing in my district again that that same process is needed because information that is out there, correct information that you’re supplying," Ybarra said, "but it’s not coming from the right person supplying it. So do you have a plan to get culturally-sound and ethnic folks talking to H-2-A workers and farmworkers in our areas?”

Yes, said Michele Roberts, and that starts with creating materials that caters to specific audiences.

“None of our materials are simply translated," Roberts said. "There’s a different process to co-create and test materials with groups of people who speak different languages because you cannot just assume they can translate something that works in English to another language and assume it will be the right information, like you just said, Representative.”

Roberts says the state is also shifting its strategy for allocating Covid vaccine. Initially it went almost exclusively to health care providers, where most of those who were inoculated first worked. Now that the vaccinations are more oriented toward people in broader communities, she says the state is working with local groups to find the best ways to get doses to specific areas where people of color live.