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Few COVID Vaccination Clinics Are Placed In Hardest-Hit Communities

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Communities of color are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. A new NPR analysis finds they're also at risk of being left behind in the vaccine rollout. As Shalina Chatlani of member station WWNO reports, Baton Rouge is one city in Louisiana where many Black residents have long lacked the medical resources they need.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: Seventy-nine-year-old Georgia Washington can't drive. And so last March, she asked her daughter to take her to the hospital.

GEORGIA WASHINGTON: I was very weak, and I was tired. And they had me tested, and they said I had the virus.

CHATLANI: Washington had COVID-19, and she had to be driven 14 miles for the medical attention. That's because Washington lives in a predominantly Black neighborhood where there aren't many resources. So when the vaccine rollout began, Washington faced the same challenge, finding a local provider. She checked pharmacies for weeks.

WASHINGTON: Went to Walgreens twice. I went to Albertsons two days ago. They didn't have it.

CHATLANI: As vaccine supply has been limited, snagging a shot in the arm is hard for most people. NPR mapped vaccination sites around the country and found that in cities like Baton Rouge, access is even more uneven. Of 25 vaccination sites listed on the state website, 19 are in the southern part of Baton Rouge, the predominantly white and wealthy area. It's also where most medical facilities are.

TASHA CLARK-AMAR: But when you go to North Baton Rouge, there are very few choices. And then how many of those are participating in the vaccine program?

CHATLANI: Tasha Clark-Amar is CEO of the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging. She operates two dozen senior centers. The council is using its network to build trust in the vaccine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Council on Aging, serving seniors.

CHATLANI: On the council's radio talk show last month, Clark-Amar invited Louisiana's secretary of health, Courtney Phillips, to talk to seniors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COURTNEY PHILLIPS: What we can't do is let the fear of the past prevent us from getting the information we need.

CLARK-AMAR: Now that's a word.

CHATLANI: And the council also stepped up to fill this pharmacy gap by providing vaccines through pop-up clinics. In fact, that's how Georgia Washington was finally able to get a shot last month. But the clinics also run into supply issues. Clark-Amar had to cancel one event at the last minute when they didn't receive all the promised doses.

CLARK-AMAR: I was livid. Thirty-five of the people that we have registered are between the ages of 80 and 99. Now you tell me, how am I supposed to pick?

CHATLANI: Clark-Amar says a patchwork of resources is part of life in Black communities. Some areas of Baton Rouge have long struggled with food insecurity, poverty and crime, as well as disparities in health care. The vaccine rollout is just the latest example.

And it's not just Baton Rouge. The NPR analysis found disparities in multiple cities where vaccination sites were clustered around hospitals, not the rural outskirts, where more low-income and minorities often live. This happened in places near Jackson, Miss., Mobile, Ala., and Columbia, S.C.

THOMAS LAVEIST: The South is perhaps more of a problem than some other parts of the country. Part of that is a long history of racism.

CHATLANI: Thomas LaVeist is a dean at Tulane University in New Orleans and also a co-chair of the Louisiana COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. In Louisiana, the National Guard is conducting vaccination events in communities that don't have adequate medical facilities. In other states, health officials are trying to forge partnerships with community health clinics and nonprofits.

LAVEIST: We have a health care system that wasn't organized from the beginning to ensure that there was an equal distribution of health care throughout the country. And what we're seeing now is just the vestiges of that.

CHATLANI: LaVeist says on the ground, community work is necessary before the vaccine rollout goes into the next stages or else existing health care gaps will only get wider.

For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani in Baton Rouge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.