In a Blue State and County, Black and Latinx Residents Have Lower Vaccination Rates as COVID Cases Mount

It’s a startling disparity made all the more notable by the county’s pledged focus on equity.

A food cart might seem an unlikely place to get a lifesaving medical treatment. But when Erica Montgomery, owner of Erica’s Soul Food, was approached about hosting a COVID-19 vaccination clinic, her answer was: “Hell, yeah.”

Montgomery, 39, an Atlanta native who describes herself as biracial, is aware of what she calls “vaccine innuendo.”

It’s part of why she got her COVID shot as soon as she was eligible. “I felt like it was the right thing to do for my community,” she says.

But she knows many Black Portlanders aren’t following suit. “They want Black people to trust the government, but Black people are still getting killed by police,” she says. “It’s just like, how do you expect us to trust you when you’re not behaving trustworthy?”

As the latest wave of the pandemic hits Southern states the hardest, much media attention is focused on Republican opposition to vaccines, among other safety protocols. National data shows just 54% of Republicans have received one shot, according to data from the health care nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.

But in a deep blue state, and an even deeper blue county, there’s also a different and noteworthy gap in who has gotten a shot.

Multnomah County has a nearly 20-point gap between the vaccination rates of white and Black or Latino residents—a startling disparity made all the more notable by the county’s pledged focus on equity. In Multnomah County, 69.9% of white adults have at least one shot, as of Aug. 7, while 50.5% of Black adults and 50.3% of Latinx adults have had one.

To be sure, racial health disparities, including COVID-19 vaccination rates, are the American norm rather than the exception.

But Multnomah County is recognized for its public health expertise—County Chair Deborah Kafoury called the county’s public health department among the “best” in the country in an interview last month. And some places that have focused on addressing disparate outcomes have experienced success: In San Francisco, a higher percentage of Latinx residents are vaccinated than white residents.

But in Portland, the lower vaccination rates mean that Black and Latinx residents are disproportionately at risk in the latest wave. At a July 26 event, Multnomah County said Black residents were five times as likely to be hospitalized as the Delta variant took hold in Oregon. The county says a disproportionate number of hospitalizations for Black Portlanders has continued.

“Local Public Health and the Community Health Center have had enormous success reaching communities of color; nearly three-in-four people vaccinated through Multnomah County identify as BIPOC,” says Multnomah County spokesperson Kate Yeiser. “We continue to expand and adjust those efforts, including a current shift alongside the state in census tract-specific vaccination clinics and incentives.”

A certain dismissiveness is common among Portland progressives who grabbed vaccinations early on—a sort of Darwinian spectator sport of watching the recent case increases.

The whispered question: Why care about those who aren’t vaccinated yet?

One version of that sentiment came from Gregory McKelvey, a Black activist-turned-political consultant who tweeted July 26: “At what point do we collectively decide that if someone isn’t vaccinated by now that they might just suck and can’t be convinced?” (To be sure, McKelvey, who is active on social media, has also pressed for a greater understanding of Black vaccine hesitancy due to racism.)

But it is possible for vaccine-hesitant people to be persuaded.

Rachelle Dixon, a Black community leader who spoke to WW for a January story on vaccine hesitancy, said at the time she’d wait and see. She now says she received among the last COVID-19 shots given at the Oregon Convention Center.

What convinced her? The variants. “It was mutating so fast I realized I would become part of the problem,” she now tells WW.

In national polling, white Republicans are more likely than Black and Latinx people to say they never want a vaccine. That provides an opening for bridging the disparity.

The county is working to make vaccinations more convenient. It is paying people up to $150, in hopes the financial aid will enable them to take time off work, and providing as much information to specific populations as possible.

And after playing down the prospect of imposing vaccine mandates at a Portland Public Schools COVID-19 briefing on Aug. 4, county officials now say they haven’t ruled them out.

“We did start with education and offered incentives to motivate people,” Yeiser tells WW. “As we learn more about the Delta variant, we know the main way out of this pandemic is through widespread vaccination, which leaves all options on the table at this point.”

National surveys show some 5% of adults have not made the time to get vaccinated but would do so if it were required for work or to go to restaurants or attend public events.

Last month, the success of small vaccination drives was measured in terms of 50 or 100 people showing up.

Boys & Girls Clubs have been hosting clinics since May at a rotating list of locations, working with other community organizations, including the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization, El Programa Hispano Católico, Hacienda CDC and Latino Network.

On a Sunday in July in Lents, the clinic gave patients vaccinations, bread and water in addition to gift cards.

“Some folks have to miss work or get a sitter for their kids,” says Rachel Schutz, vice president of club services for Boys & Girls Clubs in the metro area. “If we can alleviate some of that burden, that’s helpful.”

Two men who have been eligible since May both mentioned the convenience of a clinic in their neighborhood—one attended church nearby, and another lived close to the clinic.

One said it took time for him to learn more about the vaccine.

“I was hesitant because I had a friend who died after his second dose,” says Robert Dorris, 64, a retired computer tech who is Black. “Later I learned he had other issues.”

As for Montgomery, she thinks building trust between Black people and government requires addressing social justice: “I think if the Biden administration acknowledged systemic racism and made crimes that are racially based very, very highly punishable, then maybe the Black people will trust you.”

Meanwhile, she’s doing what she can. Last month, Montgomery saw one of her elderly mobility-challenged customers waiting in the parking lot long before she opened. He was awaiting his second dose.

“I’ve never seen him do that,” she recalls. “I felt like, even if it was just that one guy, at least that we got that done.”