By Matt Martinez Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Jul 05, 2021 at 5:01 PM Photography: Melody McCurtis

In Milwaukee’s central city neighborhoods, COVID-19 vaccination rates remain low when compared with the rest of Wisconsin.

In the 53206 ZIP code on the North Side, for example, about 6,200 residents have received one dose of the vaccine, accounting for 27 percent of the population, according to data from the Wisconsin Immunization Registry. In 53210, about 8,200 people, or 30 percent of the population, have received the vaccine.

In South Side ZIP codes, like 53215 and 53204, the rates are higher. 53215 has vaccinated nearly 42 percent of its residents, and 53204 has vaccinated 35 percent.

Nearly twice as many people are vaccinated in low-vulnerability areas, where residents are likely to have better health outcomes because of better access to health care and their environment than in high-vulnerability areas in Milwaukee, where residents are affected by lack of access and unhealthy conditions. It’s a difference between 61,000 and 33,000, respectively.

Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, said Milwaukee County lags just a bit behind the state’s overall vaccination rate. As of June 24, the state had vaccinated about 50 percent of residents, whereas Milwaukee County had vaccinated about 48 percent.

Weston said the vaccination rates reflect long-standing disparities in access to health care between the county’s most underserved neighborhoods and its wealthiest.

A look at the central city

Weston said the Evaluating Vulnerability and Equity (EVE) Model provides an in-depth portrait of the central city.

The EVE model places vaccination rates alongside the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index. The index uses data from the census to measure 15 social factors and environmental pressures that can lead to worse health outcomes, including socioeconomic status, housing, lack of access to transportation and disability. It also factors in race and language spoken for a given population.

The EVE Model map for Milwaukee County color codes areas with high vulnerability and low vaccination rates with deep orange. In Milwaukee, the 53204, 53206, 53210, 53215 and 53205 ZIP codes are represented in areas that are mostly deep orange.

The city does have some areas, including within those ZIP codes, that are coded as dark green, meaning they have high vulnerability and high vaccination rates. The goal of using the EVE Model is to shift all of the dark orange slots to dark green.

Weston said the lower rates in underserved areas were expected, but April’s “precipitous drop” in those seeking vaccinations was surprising. In a few days’ time, the number of people seeking first doses of the vaccine slid from over 5,200 a day to under 2,000.

COVID-19’s effects on racial disparities in these neighborhoods can be seen in the data. The Black population has seen nearly 2,500 hospitalizations from the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, just 300 less than the white population, which is over twice its size.

In addition, despite making up only 15 percent of the county’s population, the Latinx population has the second most cases in the county with over 25,000. These numbers follow state trends.

Weston said one of the keys to increasing vaccination rates is convenience. For many, getting the shot has been difficult because of transportation barriers. The city’s current strategy for vaccination relies heavily on pop-up clinics and mobile units going to underserved areas.

“We have to pop up where people are,” Weston said.

Denisha Tate-McAlister, interim executive director at the Dominican Center, said when the vaccine was first rolling out, people couldn’t find clinics in the Amani neighborhood to receive their vaccine. Efforts to get the vaccine into the community have helped.

“It gave people choice and agency,” Tate-McAlister said. “To want it and not have access to it adds to the disparity.”

The Dominican Center was part of a team with Metcalfe Park Community Bridges and other organizations that put together vaccination clinics at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and COA Goldin Center over the last few months.

Tate-McAlister said it was important to have the clinics at places in the community that were familiar and respected.

“It’s a place that neighbors identify as their own,” Tate-McAlister said. “It’s ours. I’m not going to a doctor’s office, I’m going to a place where I broke bread.”

Skepticism remains

For some, however, availability isn’t the issue. Dennis Walton, an Amani resident and community activist, has not received his COVID-19 vaccination.

Walton is mostly hesitant because of how quickly things rolled out, saying that he doesn’t trust a vaccine that could be developed in a few months. Compared to the normal development of a vaccine, the emergency use authorization granted by the Food and Drug Administration didn’t sit well with him.

“There should have been more data, education and research to make people trust this process,” Walton said.

The vaccine comes with the endorsement of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It passed through clinical trials before being released and continues to be tested before use in younger populations.

Walton said he also feels many people have not done enough research into the ingredients of the vaccine.

“People (I’ve asked) can’t tell you what’s in it,” Walton said.

Walton said information that came out regarding the coronavirus was also unreliable, citing developing information that was reported by officials at the beginning of the pandemic.

“One day they’re saying it’s in wet markets in China and defaming Asian people,” Walton said. “A week later, coronavirus is on Locust Street and Black people started dying.”

Walton said the skepticism is also rooted in the vaccine becoming a political issue as well as mistrust by some in the Black community of the medical community after the Tuskegee syphilis study in which Black men diagnosed with syphilis were left untreated for 40 years.

“As a relatively healthy person, to go to a pop-up vaccination clinic and have someone stick a needle in me when I don’t know what the long-term effects are? It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Walton, who is 46 years old.

Walton said he respects the rights of others to choose what they want to do with their bodies, and he hopes they’ll respect his, too.

Tate-McAlister said many residents still have safety concerns, but she believes the Milwaukee Health Department has been diligent in answering people’s questions during the clinics.

In Amani, many are still masked up and still social distancing, but there is an “energy of joy, an energy of reunion” among its residents, Tate-McAlister said. But there is still cause for concern in the neighborhood, where outcomes are affected by socioeconomic disparities.

As a vaccinated person, Tate-McAlister isn’t worried about getting COVID-19, but she is concerned about “what it does to a family, the stability of a household” if it reaches someone who isn’t.

Even if the rest of the world seems to be doing OK, there’s still a need and even urgency for people to get vaccinated, Tate-McAlister said.

“We can’t let our guard down,” Tate-McAlister said.