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Missouri Officials Used Inaccurate Racial Data To Ensure Vaccination Equity

FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020 file photo, a droplet falls from a syringe after a health care worker is injected with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, R.I. The Vatican has declared it “morally acceptable” for Roman Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines based on research that used fetal tissue from abortions. he Vatican’s watchdog office for doctrinal orthodoxy said Monday that it addressed the question after receiving requests for guidance. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
David Goldman/AP
Missouri officials have touted their commitment to equitable COVID-19 vaccination distribution, but the data they have used was not based on Missouri's population.

State officials provided no explanation why they used national racial percentages rather than data based on Missouri’s population.

Updated: March 26, 2021 at 2:13 PM CDT
This story has been updated to include the comments of an official from the Kansas City Health Department.

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 on Tuesday, 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, officials said they would move forward using 2019 U.S. Census data from Missouri but said some parts of the data remain problematic.

Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, who serves as executive director of the Black Health Care Coalition, expressed frustration with the incorrect data.

“Knowing that the data was wrong and not the data that represents the local community and the state — that does raise concerns,” Robinson said. “And it deepens, unfortunately, the [gaps in] relationships of trust that we’re trying to rebuild.”

Missouri’s health department did not explain why the national data had been used and did not respond to inquiries seeking additional information.

Officials with the Kansas City Health Department remain skeptical about the state’s data.

“The demographic data provided by the state for those who have been vaccinated has been lacking in its quality, and that has not changed with their new updates,” Deputy Director Frank Thompson said in an email.

Thompson said the city health department uses U.S. Census data on Kansas City for its own vaccination tracking.

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 on Thursday, continues to show wide disparities in vaccination rates by race, including a 10.2% vaccination rates for Black residents compared with an 18.7% rate for whites.

For some racial groups, however, including Asian, American Indian or Alaska Natives, the revised dashboard shows improved vaccination rates.

But the health department also acknowledged that some problems with the data remain unresolved.

For example, the current vaccination rate of 54.4% shown for “multiracial” residents is recognized by state and local health officials in Missouri to be incorrect, and the health department said it is continuing to work on the problem.

“We are committed to constantly working to ascertain the populations who are choosing vaccination, especially as vaccine supply increases,” the health department's director, Dr. Randall Williams, 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 … why do you put it on a website when you know it’s not true?” Archer said.

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

Questions about the data will be even more urgent as Missouri expands vaccine eligibility in the coming weeks, Thompson said.

“It is hard to make any determining statements as the vaccine eligible population to this point has been rather limited, but as we move into phase 2 and beyond, equity will be of ever increasing importance,” Thompson said.

Councilwoman Robinson said that she recognized the difficulties faced by the state in collecting and disseminating racial data, and she said she appreciated their efforts to correct it.

But she said the state’s failures threaten to further undermine trust in state and health officials when trust is needed to bolster confidence in vaccinations.

“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.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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