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Missouri Officials Used Inaccurate Racial Data To Ensure Vaccination Equity

Missouri National Guardsman Richard Waithira inspects a vial of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine he is administering to the elderly at Cambridge Senior Living Center in St. Louis on Thursday, March 4, 2021.
Bill Greenblatt
Missouri National Guardsman Richard Waithira inspects a vial of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine he is administering at Cambridge Senior Living Center in St. Louis last month.

Throughout the COVID-19 vaccination effort, Missouri health officials have insisted that equitable distribution of doses by race and ethnicity has been a priority.

But late last month, the state health department acknowledged that it has used national data to estimate Missouri’s racial breakdown, rather than data based on Missouri’s population.

In a news release, state officials said they would move forward using 2019 U.S. Census data from Missouri but said some parts of the data remain problematic.

The inconsistent numbers are a source of frustration for the state’s local health officials.

“We rely on the state to provide the information on what is happening from other sources,” said Spring Schmidt, co-director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health. “Yes, it impacts us but has not changed our approach.”

Schmidt’s department collects its own demographic data during its vaccination efforts. However, it relies on state numbers to judge how vaccinations are being distributed equitably statewide.

“This state change muddies the data but does not affect our focus,” she said.

The Department of Health and Senior Services did not respond to inquiries seeking additional information.

Missouri’s population includes a larger percentage of white residents and a smaller percentage of most nonwhite groups than the United States as a whole.

The revised dashboard, which began using Missouri-based data last week, continues to show wide disparities in vaccination rates by race. For example, 12.5% of the state’s Black residents have received at least one vaccine dose, compared to close to 27% of state residents as a whole.

Asian Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives and others show improved vaccination rates in the revised dashboard.

State health officials also acknowledged that some problems with the data remain unresolved.

For example, the dashboard shows 58% of the state’s “multiracial” residents have received their first dose, a statistic state officials say is incorrect. DHSS officials continue to work on correcting the data, according to a note on the online dashboard.

“We are committed to constantly working to ascertain the populations who are choosing vaccination, especially as vaccine supply increases,” Dr. Randall Williams, state health director, said in the news release. “We greatly appreciate vaccinators’ diligence in providing us with this information.”

Lack of data on ethnicity also remains an issue. Data on whether someone is Hispanic is provided for only a third of vaccine recipients.

Dr. Rex Archer, head of the Kansas City Health Department, told KCUR in mid-March that his department was not using the state’s data because it was known to be faulty.

“When you have all these unknowns,” Archer said, “why do you put it on a website when you know it’s not true?”

The state health department also revised its demographic data practices in its Missouri Vaccine Navigator system last Thursday.

In a message to users, it said it would share its demographic data with local health departments to help them target vaccination efforts. But it also offered users the option of opting out of that feature.

The state’s failures threaten to further undermine trust in state and health officials when trust is needed to bolster confidence in vaccinations, said Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, who serves as executive director of the Black Health Care Coalition.

“Especially with vaccine hesitancy in the African American community, we don’t have any room for error, and we don’t have any room to give people additional ammunition to discourage people from getting the vaccination,” Robinson said.

Follow Alex on Twitter: @AlexSmithKCUR

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Alex Smith
Alex Smith began working in radio as an intern at the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. A few years and a couple of radio jobs later, he became the assistant producer of KCUR's magazine show, KC Currents. In January 2014 he became KCUR's health reporter.
Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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