New state data released Thursday reveals striking disparities in COVID-19 vaccination rates in the 20 Massachusetts cities and towns hardest hit by the pandemic, especially among Latino residents who lag behind other racial and ethnic groups in inoculation rates.
In Lawrence, where 82 percent of the population is Latino, just 2 percent of Latino residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine, compared with 47 percent of white residents, who make up just 12 percent of the population. In Chelsea, where 68 percent of the population is Latino, just 7 percent of Latino residents have been vaccinated, compared with one-third of the city’s white residents. And in Holyoke, the state’s third majority-Latino city, just 6 percent of Latino residents have gotten a shot, while 23 percent of white residents have.
The complete data set shows inoculation rates, broken down by gender, age, race, and ethnicity in each Massachusetts city and ZIP code. The data show similar trends in cities with significant Latino populations, like Lynn, Revere, Everett, and Fitchburg, where the deadly virus has run rampant. In each of those cities, Latinos make up between 30 and 45 percent of the population. Yet the vaccines have been administered to 8 percent or fewer of them. Meanwhile, the proportion of white residents that have received at least one dose in those cities is three to four times higher.
Overall, approximately 8 percent of Latinos in Massachusetts have gotten at least one dose, compared with 22 percent of white residents, 15 percent of Black residents, and 13 percent of Asian residents.
“This is devastating data but it doesn’t come as a surprise,” said Eva Millona, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “We know COVID has aggravated longstanding inequities in our country. We know communities of color and immigrant communities, including the Latinx community, have been disproportionately impacted by COVID infections. We know the hospitalization data has been alarming.”
In an interview Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders attributed the disparities to a number of factors, including the current eligibility rules. The vaccines are only being administered to people who meet specific criteria — such as health care personnel, nursing home residents, and first responders — in addition to people 65 and over and those with two or more qualifying comorbidities. On Thursday, teachers, school staff, and child care workers were allowed to book appointments.
The state’s Latino population, Sudders noted, skews younger. Latino residents also are overrepresented among “essential workers,” toiling in supermarkets, warehouses, and food-processing plants, who have not yet been vaccinated.
“I think a lot of it is trust and where do people get their information,” Sudders added. “There is a lot on social media in Spanish language forums that is not necessarily accurate.”
Lawrence Mayor Kendrys Vasquez said the city is “aggressively” educating residents about the vaccine with its own public messaging campaign. On Thursday, the city also opened a new vaccination site at the Arlington School, located in the densest and poorest neighborhood. The site has capacity to vaccinate 1,200 people a day, he said, but the state has only given the health department 600 doses this week. The city also operates its own call center to help residents without access to the Internet book appointments.
But Vasquez believes the current vaccine eligibility criteria are too restrictive for cities like Lawrence, where many residents are low-wage essential workers living in crowded, multigenerational homes.
“That has to change,” he said, of the state’s eligibility requirements. “I am definitely glad that this is open to health care workers and teachers, but I think it needs to continue to be expanded upon to meet the need of communities like ours.”
Last month, the Department of Public Health launched a new initiative aimed at reducing barriers to vaccination in hard-hit communities of color. The initiative is being aimed at 20 cities and towns with high “social vulnerability” and coronavirus caseloads: Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Framingham, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Methuen, New Bedford, Randolph, Revere, Springfield, and Worcester.
The agency is working with local boards of health, faith leaders, and community health centers to raise awareness about the safety of the vaccines through town halls and other forums, and pinpoint gaps in vaccination access. The department is also hiring local residents for outreach.
The state has invested $2.5 million in a multilingual public awareness campaign to address vaccine skepticism among residents of color.
“I think in the next two weeks, we’ll start to see what I will call ‘vax campaigns’ in the streets, on the streets in these communities,” Sudders said. The department, she added, has also allocated additional doses — ranging from 400 to 1,000 per week — to those 20 municipalities , with the most going to Boston, “for them to do whatever kind of engagement or intervention they need to do.”
But critics of the state’s rollout say the racial and ethnic disparities are a reflection of an inherently inequitable vaccination system that privileges the white middle class at the expense of immigrants, people of color, and the poor.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said there are still too many structural barriers keeping many Latinos from securing a vaccination appointment, including lack of transportation to the sites and access to the Internet.
He pointed to the state’s outreach campaign as a prime example of government officials’ failure to “provide culturally and linguistically competent vaccine information to communities of color and immigrants.”
The slogan of the state’s campaign — “Trust the facts. Get the vax.” — is catchy in English, but transliterated in Spanish — “Confíe en las pruebas. Vacúnese” — just “doesn’t work,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. That’s because in Spanish, the word for “facts” also means tests, as in COVID-19 tests, or quizzes, like you’d take in school.
“So if you’re looking at the advertisement in Spanish, you don’t know if they’re talking about facts, tests, or quizzes,” he said. “It’s not helpful; it actually creates confusion and more uncertainty on the undecided families.”