A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine
A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Darrow Montgomery

UPDATE, June 14: On Monday, D.C. met the 70 percent goal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of the local population over 18 years old is at least partially vaccinated, as of 2 p.m. on Monday.

D.C. is on track to reach its goal of having 70 percent of adults partially vaccinated by July 4. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 68.9 percent of the local population over 18 years old has had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Sunday afternoon. Mayor Muriel Bowser joined dozens of mayors in a national challenge to get 70 percent of adults partially vaccinated by July 4. At least 14 juridictions have already met the target. 

Vaccinations have led to overall decreases in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in D.C. The variants first detected in the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa do not seem to be reversing those trends. And health officials do not expect them to. “It’s unlikely that any of these variants that are currently in the nation should alter the trend of cases, hospilizations, and deaths since they’ve already been a part of our community for quite some time,” said Dr. Ankoor Shah, DC Health’s vaccine lead, in a conference call with the Council on Friday. “We know vaccinations work against our variants.” 

But because vaccinations have been uneven due to hesitancy and access issues, racial disparities are painfully apparent in who’s getting sick and dying of COVID-19 in recent weeks. Despite accounting for 46 percent of the local population, Black residents make up more than 80 percent of COVID-19 cases and deaths. While reaching 70 percent is a milestone, it shouldn’t be the only goal D.C. sets for itself. In fact, D.C.’s goals should be more targeted. 

City officials are very aware that Black Washingtonians make up larger shares of new infections and deaths. “It is the top priority of everyone involved in this response,” said City Administrator Kevin Donahue during Friday’s Council call. 

Addressing racial disparities is easier said than done, officials have repeatedly said. “The racial disparity across this pandemic has been evident over the past 16 months, and not only in the District but in the United States. And it is something we shouldn’t sit back on,” said Shah in a May 28 Council call. “But the solution is not only something like a program or initiative … Institutional and structural racism that’s embedded throughout all parts of our society is making itself known in health outcomes.” 

As officials try to address the disparities, advocates fear that COVID-19 will become a “Black and Brown disease.” It’s true that the disparities have only widened. According to the Post, Black residents account for more than 80 percent of newly reported cases in recent weeks, as compared to 46 percent late last year.     

Deaths have decreased month after month since vaccinations started in late December. Deaths declined by 30 percent between April and May alone. But Black residents account for the vast majority of deaths. Of the 68 D.C. residents who died in April and May, 60—or 88 percent—were Black, according to DCcovid.com, a website run by data scientist Ryan Stahlin that pulls DC Health data and analyzes it. Four, or 6 percent, were Latinx, and four, or 6 percent, were White. 

D.C.’s less affluent neighborhoods are seeing a disproportionate number of deaths. Ward 5, where the median household income is $71,782, tallied the most deaths the last two months. Ward 5 saw 16 deaths in April and May; Wards 6 and 8 each saw 13; Ward 7 saw 11; Ward 4 saw eight; Ward 1 saw four, Ward 3 saw two; and Ward 2 saw one. Vaccinations by ward seem to correlate with recent deaths, with the exception of Ward 6: 

Graph depicting vaccination rate by ward in D.C.

The people who are dying of COVID-19 are somebody to someone. Shanetta Wilson, 43, died of COVID-19 on June 1. Shanetta was a mother—she had a 15-year-old son. She was also six months pregnant when she got sick, according to WUSA9. Following the advice of her doctors, Shanetta decided to wait until later in her pregnancy to get vaccinated. She had just been given the green light to get the shot before contracting the deadly virus. “I’m telling you, she loves to dance, and just her spirit and her joy about life,” Shanetta’s niece, Charlene, told WUSA9. “And her positivity about, you know, not letting negative things overcome or overtake your day. So I’m going to miss that about her.” 

What exactly are city officials doing about the racial disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths? 

The racial disparities in new cases and deaths related to COVID-19 have become a frequent topic of conversation among city officials. In the Council call on Friday, Bowser’s team said they’d be directing more dollars to address the racial disparities. 

Donahue said the executive is going to launch a variety of financial incentives over the summer to encourage more residents to get vaccinated. City officials within the mayor’s office had waited to see how successful incentives in other jurisdictions had been before moving forward with their own. The city administrator did not provide any more details on the incentives. He also said the executive would also direct more money to community-based organizations that work closely with Black and Brown communities. 

Already, the Bowser administration has encouraged residents to get vaccinated by offering them free beer or free tickets to soccer matches. The administration is also offering D.C. employees who got vaccinated eight hours of additional leave. According to a survey of 3,500 workers—or 9 percent of the government workforce—73 percent are fully vaccinated; 9 percent are partially vaccinated; 3.5 percent are not yet but plan to get vaccinated; and 8.7 percent do not have plans to get vaccinated. 

Government employees who are still hesitant cited the vaccine’s side effects and the speed at which it was manufactured, as well as the belief that they just don’t need to get vaccinated. At this time, officials have no intention of making vaccination a condition of employment. 

Shah said there is a larger disparity in vaccination coverage among younger Black adults, namely 20- to 40-year-olds. He says the government just started targeting this demographic in May, so he expects vaccinations to increase.  

—Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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