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Texas A&M virologist says discrepancies in local vaccine distribution must be solved to reach herd immunity

Published: Mar. 23, 2021 at 10:51 PM CDT
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - A Texas A&M University virologist says problems with how the COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed among minority communities in Brazos County must be solved in order to achieve herd immunity and defeat the virus.

As more people get vaccinated and more doses get manufactured, reaching herd immunity becomes less about challenges with supply and demand and more about convincing everyone to get their shot. Nearly 45,000 people have received at least one dose of the vaccine in Brazos County, but minority communities are lagging behind in terms of population proportions.

Texas A&M Virologist Dr. Ben Neuman says that’s not only a big concern, but he was also surprised to see the trends specific to Brazos County.

“I wasn’t expecting all minority groups to be sort of equally low in vaccine uptake. That is what we see in Brazos County,” Neuman said. “Normally, you would see that one community might be low, while another one like the Asian community, for example, might be a little higher than average or might be about normal, but no. It is across the board everybody who is not self-identifying as White is disproportionately less likely to have been vaccinated.”

Neuman says when he sees disparities this large, it’s because of two primary factors - vaccine access and hesitancy.

“Generally, it appears to be more to do with access,” Neuman said. “That seems to be the bigger issue, and the other ones seem to be a little smaller from the most recent studies that I’ve read.”

One vital resource to getting a vaccine, Neuman says, is reliable internet access, especially early on in the rollout. Knowing where to go and where to look for available doses also play a significant role.

“I would imagine there are going to be differences in all of these things, even within a place as small as Brazos County,” Neuman said.

He says solving problems with hesitancy are far more complex, but the best place to start is by reaching out to a community leader with a trusted voice capable of influencing others.

“I think it’s got to come from within those communities,” Neuman said. “One thing that I’ve done and I know that others have done is just be available to try and help. If a church or a group of pastors want to talk to me, I’ll talk to them. I’m just interested in answering questions to as many people who have them. It’s worth it because helping anybody is helping everybody in this situation.”

Neuman says both problems of access and hesitancy need in Brazos County need to be solved. That’s because the state of Texas can’t afford to overlook anyone if it wants to reach herd immunity by vaccinating 75% of the total population.

“Problem is, 25% of Texas is under 18, and they’re not going to be able to get the vaccine yet because it’s not approved,” Neuman said. “That means we would need literally everybody over 18 to get there, and that is an uphill battle.”

Neuman says it’s tough to tell from the data alone how large a factor vaccine hesitancy is playing in the county’s disparities. He hopes it’s more of a problem with access because he says it’s easier to tell people where to go and what to do as opposed to calming their fears.

“I know on some occasions there have been some available doses in the area where there were basically more doses than there was demand,” Neuman said. “There’s a chance we could be getting this to more people, and I hope it’s not reluctance or lack of trust that’s behind it. Those are tough problems to solve.”

The only way out of the pandemic, Neuman says, is through vaccination. That means it’s critical to get everyone on board to receive their shot.

“Science has done this. We’ve knocked out smallpox. We’ve got polio basically on the ropes. There aren’t any natural transmissions anymore,” Neuman said. “This is doable, and we did those other things mostly with technologies developed between the 1950s and the 1990s. We’ve got the tools, and it’s the right time. This is what we need to do.”

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