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In Suffolk County, Black and Latino residents face stark disparities in vaccine access

Governor Baker has promised that hard-hit communities will have equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. So why are there so few vaccination sites in neighborhoods and communities of color?

In Chelsea, an early epicenter of the state’s outbreak, the COVID crisis is still acute. The average daily incidence rate of cases ranks among the highest in the state at 142.6 infections per 100,000 people.
In Chelsea, an early epicenter of the state’s outbreak, the COVID crisis is still acute. The average daily incidence rate of cases ranks among the highest in the state at 142.6 infections per 100,000 people.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

If you are Black or Latino and living in Suffolk County, you are more likely to have to travel farther than white residents for a coveted dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, a Globe analysis has found.

In Suffolk County, which includes Boston as well as Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop, Black and Latino residents face stark disparities in vaccine access: Fewer than 14 percent of Black residents and roughly 26 percent of Latinos live in census tracts that are within 1 mile of a vaccination site, compared with nearly 46 percent of white residents.

Currently, the only public vaccination site in Suffolk County is at the South Boston Community Health Center. A mass vaccination site at Fenway Park is slated to open Feb. 1 for prioritized groups.

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The dearth of state-run vaccination sites in hard-hit places such as Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, East Boston, and Chelsea has frustrated and confounded infectious disease doctors and community advocates, who have seen the deadly virus run rampant for months in these predominantly Black and Latino communities.

“Once again, we are in the back of the line and we are forgotten and neglected,” said Dinanyili Paulino, chief operating officer of the Chelsea-based nonprofit La Colaborativa, which operates a food pantry serving thousands of residents a week. “Why should we have to come to Fenway? We are the epicenter. They should come to us. ... Our members don’t even have 50 cents to ride the bus.”

In a statement to the Globe Friday, a spokesperson for the state’s COVID-19 Response Command Center said the Commonwealth shares a “commitment to the equitable distribution and access to vaccines” and more vaccination sites for eligible recipients will be opening in the coming weeks, including in Suffolk County.

There are currently more than 150 COVID-19 vaccination sites across Massachusetts. Most are for first responders, and the remainder for other groups prioritized in Phase One of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, such as health care workers and staff of congregate care facilities, like shelters and group homes.

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These sites include more than a dozen CVS and Walgreens pharmacies, as well as senior centers, local government buildings, schools, and medical practices. For example, in Weston — where the population is almost 80 percent white and the median income is more than $207,000 — eligible residents can receive inoculations at the Town Hall. In the predominantly white and wealthy suburbs of Needham and Newton, there are three vaccination sites located within 3 miles of each other: at a recreation complex, a clinic, and one at a satellite campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst run by a private medical practice.

Statewide, access to these sites is more equitable among Latino, Black, and white residents than in Suffolk County, one of the state’s most populous and diverse counties, according to a Globe analysis of US Census data. About 54 percent of Latino, 49 percent of white, and 45 percent of Black residents in Massachusetts live in census tracts within 1 mile of a state-supported vaccination site.

The Baker administration has promised more public vaccination sites will be added on a rolling basis, including another 40 at Wegmans, Price Chopper, and Stop & Shop grocery stores, starting Monday, which may improve accessibility. Potential vaccination sites, a state official noted, are being identified based on logistics and geography, but declined to provide more details on how these sites are chosen. Currently, most people who are eligible for inoculations are getting vaccinated where they work.

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The lack of vaccination sites in Greater Boston’s communities of color seems at odds with Governor Charlie Baker’s pledge to make equity a cornerstone of the state’s distribution plan. The Baker administration has promised to set aside 20 percent of doses in the second and third phases to supplement allotments for vulnerable cities and towns with high COVID-19 infection rates. And despite a flurry of criticism from seniors who have not yet been given wider access to the vaccine, the administration made the decision to prioritize people in correctional facilities and homeless shelters in the first phase.

Still, white residents remain overwhelmingly the beneficiaries of the state’s vaccines. The proportion of white residents in Massachusetts is 9 and 6.5 times higher than for Black and Latino residents, respectively. But according to the most recent state data, white residents have received at least 15 times as many doses as Black residents and 12 times as many doses as Latino residents. Of the 359,919 doses administered as of Jan. 19, about 41 percent have gone to white people, while just under 3 and 4 percent have gone to Black and Latino residents, respectively. Asians also have received less than 4 percent of the doses.

(The state’s published vaccination data on race and ethnicity is incomplete. For roughly a quarter of total doses administered, the race and ethnicity of the recipients is unknown or labeled “other.”)

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Michael Curry, CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers and a member of the panel advising Baker on vaccine distribution, said he expects these numbers to improve, especially in Phase Two, scheduled to begin next month, when eligibility expands to seniors, people with qualifying health conditions, and essential workers.

In Chelsea, a city of nearly 40,000 people and an early epicenter of the state’s outbreak, the COVID crisis is still acute. The city is 67 percent Latino and nearly half of its residents are immigrants. Many are undocumented, work low-wage jobs, and live in crowded apartments. The average daily incidence rate of virus cases in Chelsea ranks among the highest in the state at 142.6 infections per 100,000 people.

Chelsea City Manager Thomas Ambrosino said he has begun preliminary discussions with a few local hospitals about creating a large-scale vaccination site in the city. Otherwise, he’s not aware of any plans from the state to do so. Ambrosino said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the state will provide Chelsea with the resources it needs to scale-up a mass vaccination site as more groups become eligible. Ambrosino said the city’s “minuscule” health department has been able to handle the few hundred nursing home residents and first responders, who are being vaccinated at Rumney Marsh Academy in neighboring Revere. But challenges will arise in Phase Two.

“We’ve been making the case to the state that they ought to be prioritizing sites in hard-hit communities, and I’m hopeful they will make that decision before too long,” Ambrosino said. “It’s a message we’ve been sending, and I hope it gets through. I think it would be really shameful if that does not happen.”

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The Boston Public Health Commission, meanwhile, is finalizing plans to open another mass vaccination site in addition to the one at Fenway Park, an official said; first responders in Boston are being vaccinated at Tufts and Boston medical centers.

As with the rest of the country, Black and Latino residents in Massachusetts have suffered disproportionately since the pandemic began. The age-adjusted death rate for Black and Latino residents in the Commonwealth is three times higher than for white residents, according to an analysis in December from researchers at the UMass Donahue Institute and UMass Amherst. Massachusetts cities and towns with high Black and Latino populations also are associated with staggering increases in COVID-19 infections per capita.

“If you’re racing to put out a fire, you want to put the firehose in the place that’s burning the hottest. It is an analogy here,” said Dr. Regina LaRocque, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “We need this tool to be brought with intensity to the places where it is most needed.”

LaRocque was among the more than 250 medical professionals and activists who signed a letter delivered this week to Baker and other state health officials, urging them to prioritize Black and immigrant communities in the vaccine rollout. Merely “setting aside doses,” the letter writers argued, for communities with high infection rates “is insufficient to ensure that they actually reach marginalized communities.” They recommended partnering with trusted community organizations, such as La Colaborativa, to immediately deliver the vaccines.

“COVID-19 has obviously amplified the disparities that already exist, and when we have efficacious interventions to address problems and we don’t get them to the most vulnerable ... we’re going to end up with worse disparities,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, an infectious diseases specialist at Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals, and one of the letter’s signatories.

For people who already suffer from “baseline inequity,” Ojikutu added, “you have to put in more effort, more resources into to it, than you may for other people. That’s what equity is all about.”


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan. John Hancock can be reached at john.hancock@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Hancock_JohnD.