PROVIDENCE — A group of Black and Latino leaders stood on the State House steps Thursday, calling for the state to hold a mass COVID-19 vaccination weekend for people of color in Rhode Island.
As part of “A Call for Health Justice,” speakers said vaccination rates for people of color are lagging behind those of the white residents at a time when people of color are facing greater risks of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
While the state has prioritized hard-hit, high-density ZIP codes, they said that strategy is insufficient because people of color are spread across the state. And while some people are hesitant to get the vaccine, they said the bigger barriers are vaccine allocation and access.
“Our call is for a mass vaccination, not just within ZIP codes, but a coordinated emphasis to ensure that we make a dedicated effort to vaccinate in large venues that can accommodate thousands of people of color,” said Pastor Howard M. Jenkins Jr. of the Bethel AME Church in Providence.
Too often, people of color are finding the vaccination process to be “slow, cumbersome, and difficult,” Jenkins said.
After lagging behind most other states, Rhode Island has stepped up its overall rate of vaccination, he said, but now the state must take steps to boost the rate of vaccination among its Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) residents.
“We are here today as collective voices that recognize the urgency to ensure that the BIPOC population – our people of color – are not left out once again,” Jenkins said.
“We are very much aligned with what community leaders have called out,” Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said during a press conference later in the day. “We have done a lot. There is more that needs to be done.”
According to the most recent Department of Health data, the demographic breakdown of those who have received at least one vaccine dose is: 1.65 percent Asian, 3 percent Black, 7.75 percent Latino, 12 percent unknown, and 71 percent white.
Dr. Luis Daniel Muñoz, a Pawtucket resident and member of the governor’s Equity Council, said people of color are facing disproportionate risks from the pandemic.
For example, Black and Latino people ages 55 to 64 are as likely to die from COVID-19 as white people 75 to 84 in Rhode Island, he said, and Black and Latino people ages 35 to 44 are three times more likely to be hospitalized than white people ages 75 to 84.
Yet vaccination rates for those groups at greater risk are lagging, he said, and 14.2 percent of the state’s high-density communities have received the first dose of the vaccine, compared to 21.3 percent of non-high-density communities.
“The numbers just don’t add up to the risks,” Muñoz said. “Let’s be clear: We are not talking about equality here. We are talking about equity. Are we allocating enough vaccine to address the disproportionate risk that BIPOC communities are facing today? The answer is no.”
Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP and a member of the governor’s Equity Council, said the lagging vaccination rates do not reflect a reluctance among people of color to get the vaccine.
“The issue is not hesitancy – it’s access,” Vincent said. “We are here to say: No hesitancy on our part. We want the access, we want the equity.”
During his weekly coronavirus press conference, Governor Daniel J. McKee said he met with Jenkins and other advocates.
“We’ve got to ratchet that up,” he said of vaccinations for people of color. “There’s an issue there, and it needs to be addressed.”
State Representative David Morales, a Providence Democrat, emphasized that people of color have been working at high-risk jobs throughout the pandemic.
“It has been our communities of color who have been on the front lines, working at the grocery stores, working in health care centers and as janitorial staff, to provide the necessary services to not only keep our economy afloat but to ensure we have basic services,” he said.
Yet those same communities of color have not been prioritized sufficiently when it comes to getting tested and vaccinated, he said.
“There has been some progress made on the city level, within Central Falls, Pawtucket, and Providence, going through the launch of vaccines based on ZIP code,” he said. “But that is not sufficient. We need to ensure that all individuals, all people of color, especially those on the front lines, have the opportunity to get the COVID vaccine as soon as they can.”