More than a month before President Biden’s May 1 target for making all American adults eligible for vaccine appointments, more and more states are declaring an end to their limits on who qualifies for a vaccine. Six states—Alaska, Mississippi, West Virginia, Utah, Georgia, and Arizona—have already dropped all vaccine restrictions for adults, and at least 38 more have announced their plans do the same.
Next week alone, 10 more states will join in, ranging from Montana to New Hampshire geographically and from North Dakota to Texas in population.
Opening up who can get a vaccine is another step toward achieving herd immunity and could likely cause a surge in demand depending on the locale. But considering the nature of the vaccine distribution thus far, there are legitimate concerns about whether eligibility will really translate into access and about who will be able to get vaccinated even if, theoretically, anyone can.
Black Americans are being vaccinated at rates lower than their share of the general population in every state publicly reporting race and ethnicity data on vaccines, according to a New York Times data analysis. This could be, in part, because Black people make up lower shares of currently eligible demographics—like the elderly—due to premature death.
Opening up eligibility could alleviate the vaccination gap, but for that to work as intended states would have to address other structurally racist barriers to getting an appointment—such as disparities in internet access which cause Black people to lose out on slots to better connected white residents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has not mandated that race be considered a criterion for vaccine prioritization.
The disparity comes on top of vaccination rates still far below the levels that could produce herd immunity. Only 14.7 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, while 27 percent have gotten at least one shot as of March 26, according to the most up-to-date data from the CDC. When data is broken out demographically, 71 percent of America’s elderly have received one shot, and 45.9 percent have received a full vaccination, based on the same day’s dataset.
In North Carolina, where state data estimates at least 15.7 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated, low demand is part of the reason for the speedy opening up of eligibility guidelines. Healthcare providers in some of the state’s counties were vaccinating the general public anyway and more doses will be supplied to counties with lower vaccination rates.
As swaths of the most vulnerable populations have been vaccinated, pockets of the virus have emerged in younger populations; COVID-19 cases have increased among children and people between the ages of 40-49 in Michigan. State data shows that only 12.6 percent of 40-49 years old are fully vaccinated and the numbers dwindle as age decreases. (It’s net good news that higher vaccination rates among a demographic correlates with lower infection and hospitalization.) In Florida, reported infection rates from the state are trending downward as restrictions are eased.
Opening the eligibility guidelines feels like a promising landmark, but without key initiatives to combat existing inequalities in rollout, the current disparities are likely to persist.