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As Mississippi’s rollout of COVID-19 vaccines began to ramp up in early 2021, a troubling truth was revealed about the shots being put into people’s arms across the state: Black Mississippians weren’t getting their fair share.
Two months after the first doses were administered in the state, Black Mississippians had received just 19% of the total vaccines given, despite making up 38% of the state’s population. After bearing the brunt of cases and deaths early in the pandemic, Black Mississippians were being shorted on the road to recovery.
A few months later, the picture is quite different. Mississippi is much closer to vaccine parity, with 31% of total shots going to Black residents. For the past four weeks, Black Mississippians’ share of the doses administered has been equal to or higher than their share of the population.
The Blackest state in the nation is now doing a better job vaccinating its Black residents than 42 other states. And five of the states reporting a higher share of vaccinated Black residents have a total Black population between 1-3% and started vaccinating their residents weeks before Mississippi.
The efforts responsible for this progress towards vaccine equity have come overwhelmingly from the community level. They’ve come from Black doctors, faith leaders and organizers, who have gone to the Mississippi State Department of Health with solutions that were taken seriously and implemented. Solutions like increasing vaccine distribution to private physicians in areas densely populated by people of color that health officials say are responsible for the significant uptick in Black Mississippians getting vaccinated.
“I have to give (community partners) the credit in large measure because they understood the value it was for their communities,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said. “They stepped up and they got vaccinated, they did it publicly and they spoke about it. And they let us know what we need to do as far as making vaccines available within their communities.”
For months, health officials have emphasized trust and access as the two main hurdles to achieving parity when talking about the racial disparity in vaccine distribution. Black community leaders advocating for the vaccine, whether from behind the pulpit or a stethoscope, quickly found that the trust issue wasn’t all it was hyped up to be.
“I am convinced, as are many of the faith leaders, that we have moved beyond that attitude of hesitancy to a problem of access, no question about it,” said Jerry Young, Pastor of New Hope Baptist Church and president of the National Baptist Convention.
Pastor Young took part in an MSDH event in February that broadcast Black pastors from around the state taking their first doses. Young says that he and other faith leaders have seen a significant decrease in vaccine hesitancy in their congregations because of their advocacy.
Black churches have served a massive role in getting shots to where people are. Some large hospitals, like St. Dominic in Jackson, have partnered with people to bring vaccination events to their churches, giving 200-300 shots at a time.
“It’s about leadership, and in our community it’s extremely important for those of us who have that kind of trust to lead by example,” Young said. “That’s from pastors working together from the Gulf Coast all the way up to Southaven.”
A sharp decline in vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans is reflected in polling data. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from December, nearly two-thirds of Black respondents were hesitant about taking the vaccine. But when the same poll was conducted in March, that number had been cut in half. Recent polls also show that vaccine hesitancy is much more widespread among white Republicans and evangelicals.
After seeing a great response from Black patients to community vaccine education efforts, physicians like Dr. Andrea Phillips, who runs a small Jackson practice, set out to confront the outsized role vaccine hesitancy had in the conversation about racial disparities in the vaccine rollout.
“We were disturbed by the narrative that the sole reason for this was hesitancy in the African American community. We knew that that was a part of it, but we were addressing that and very aggressively,” Phillips said.
Phillips and others started asking MSDH to increase the allotments going to community health centers and small, family practices. Since the beginning of March, more of the state’s weekly dose allotment have gone to private providers than MSDH’s drive-thru vaccination sites. Health officials have acknowledged that the state’s drive-thru sites, while great for vaccinating a lot of people quickly, are not as effective as those local partners at vaccinating Black Mississippians.
“What I think the government was not realizing is that there’s a whole section of insured Black people that just go to their doctors,” Phillips said.
Even though physicians like Phillips signed up to be vaccine providers, they found themselves waiting weeks on end for a small number of shots.
“I was like, ‘I think we’re getting pushed to the background because I only want 100 or 200 shots at a time. And these other guys can take 600 or 700 at a time because they’re big places,’” Phillips said.
Phillips had received a handful of doses to fully vaccinate legacy physicians. Luckily, she had an extra dose during the second round and was able to bring in one of her patients, an 85-year-old woman who lives less than a mile from Phillip’s practice. She was in the first group eligible for vaccination, but she wanted her shot to come from Phillips.
“I introduced her to Dr. Dobbs and I said, ‘These are the people in west Jackson that are still not getting their vaccines because providers like me aren’t getting them,” Philips said.
A week later, Dobbs sent Phillips 100 doses.
That was more than she needed for her patients, so she made the rest available to anyone eligible who wanted one. Then MSDH sent another 100 doses. Phillips, who had been administering all the shots herself, knew she couldn’t do it all alone. So she organized two weekend vaccination events where volunteers from the Magnolia Hill Foundation turned her practice into its own drive-thru site. Philips also had help administering the shots from five registered nurses from the Eliza Pillars Nurses Association, the state’s first Black nurse association.
“It was just amazing to me how many people said they didn’t really have access, it was just easier for them to get it here than Smith Wills (Jackson’s drive-thru site),” Phillips said.
Now Phillips is tired and thinking about taking two weeks off. She’ll administer the last of her doses this weekend at the church of one of the nurses who helped with her drive-thru. She doesn’t know how many more vaccination events she will personally do, but she feels good about where we are.
“Mississippi, while we’ve come a long way, there’s still a problem,” Phillips said. “If the distribution we’re seeing right now continues, I think that we will ultimately see real vaccination parity.”