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Twice As Many White Alabamans Are Getting COVID-19 Vaccinations As Black Alabamans

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's a story we've heard again and again since the beginning of the vaccine rollout. The shots that can keep people from getting COVID-19 are not being given equitably to people of color who are more likely to die of the disease. In Alabama, one Birmingham clinic that serves a mostly poor Black population has not been given a single dose. Sheila Tyson is a commissioner in Jefferson County, which includes Birmingham, and she's been lobbying the state to fix this problem.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SHEILA TYSON: Good afternoon. Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Bloomberg News published a story about this north Birmingham clinic, Alabama Regional Medical Services, two weeks ago. And still, despite national attention, news reports say they're not going to have any vaccine doses until March 13 to administer to patients. What's going on?

TYSON: Yes. I still feel like Black people are not still getting the same access. We are seeing equal treatment for Black and brown communities. My office have received several calls, hundreds of calls, from Jefferson County and some people from the Black Belt.

SHAPIRO: The Black Belt, people who don't know this, is this agricultural region that goes through the center of the state.

TYSON: Right, that's in Dallas County. The issue we are hearing is mostly hardship due to lack of Internet and computers. It makes it even harder for everyone and every citizen to actually access the Internet to make an appointment.

SHAPIRO: You said state leaders are telling you they are not distributing the vaccine to majority-Black neighborhoods because they expect people there are going to be vaccine-hesitant, that they're not going to want to get vaccinated. Is that your experience when you talk to people? Is that what you hear?

TYSON: No. I am finding out thousands and thousands of people within the state of Alabama want the vaccine. We have over 125,000 people in Jefferson County on the waiting list. We want it now.

SHAPIRO: So when you talk to state leaders about the problems with equity and access, do they say, OK, let's try to fix this? Or do they say, we've got the system we've got, sorry if it doesn't work out?

TYSON: Just from talking to the leaders within Jefferson County, they don't have a clue because they're depending on the state to do all of this. And everyone is actually leaning on the states. I know for a fact Dr. Wilson has done everything in his power to get vaccines not only for Jefferson County, throughout the Black Belt too.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Wilson, who you mentioned, is Dr. Mark Wilson, Jefferson County health officer. Do you think this problem is going to be solved once there is less scarcity, once there are actually more doses out there? Or are these problems going to persist because having more doses still isn't going to get people, you know, broadband Internet access, for example?

TYSON: Jefferson County might have a solution for theirs, but what about the other 64 counties in Alabama? Fifty percent solved their problem, but you have all these other counties out there that do not have the access and the leadership that we have in Jefferson County with Dr. Wilson. We are talking about people living and dying. They have lifted the mandate for masks in April, so they definitely have me just terrified.

SHAPIRO: This has been such a persistent problem, whether we are talking about testing for the disease or treatment for the coronavirus or now the COVID-19 vaccine. Why do you think leaders, not just in Alabama but across the country, are still struggling with this issue of racial equity a year later?

TYSON: Because in this world, in this country, the pandemic has pulled the Band-Aid off of the racist cancer wound that have covered this country for centuries. No one wants to address it. Everyone keeps dodging the questions. But we are the most richest, and we have more access than anyone else. So how can this disparity exist in this country?

SHAPIRO: Sheila Tyson is a commissioner for Jefferson County in Alabama.

Thank you for talking with us today.

TYSON: You're welcome.

POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say Alabama Regional Medical Services had not yet received any doses of COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, the clinic says it received its first vaccines from the Jefferson County Health Department on Feb. 19 and its first shipment of vaccines from the state allocation on March 8. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 16, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, we incorrectly say Alabama Regional Medical Services had not yet received any doses of COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, the clinic says it received its first vaccines from the Jefferson County Health Department on Feb. 19 and its first shipment of vaccines from the state allocation on March 8.