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Flawed Data In Missouri Skews Tracking For Vaccine Equity

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Data from across the country shows wide disparities in the vaccination rates of different racial and ethnic groups. However, the way that race and ethnicity is counted varies from one state to the next, and experts say that makes it harder to achieve vaccine equity. From member station KCUR in Kansas City, Alex Smith reports.

YVETTE RICHARDS: Ms. Robin - hey, Jen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning, Yvette. How are doing?

RICHARDS: How are you doing?

ALEX SMITH, BYLINE: Community coordinator Yvette Richards welcomes congregants to a Sunday service at St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Mo. Before the pandemic, this African American church was bustling on Sundays. But for more than a year, its pews remained empty. Its services were held online. The church lost many members due to the virus and is now hosting vaccination clinics. But Richards says members are still in shock.

RICHARDS: People are really grieving not only the loss of the loved one, but the loss of a whole year, a loss of being lonely, a loss being at home, not being able to come to church, not being able to go out into the community.

SMITH: Since the start of the vaccination effort, Missouri state leaders have insisted that getting vaccines into communities like this one is a top priority, and they've pointed to state data on race and ethnicity to show how closely equity is being monitored. But for Kansas City Health Department director Dr. Rex Archer, one number is a giveaway that this data isn't right. The state website seems to show that multiracial Missourians have a vaccination rate of almost 65%, nearly double the state average. Dr. Archer thinks it's unlikely the rate is that good.

REX ARCHER: So there is some huge problem with the way the state is collecting race and ethnicity data under COVID vaccination.

SMITH: Missouri state officials have acknowledged the inaccuracy since February, but they haven't managed to fix it. They've also found other data problems, too. Health officials are now working to target vaccination campaigns in communities where rates are low. But Archer says the state's data provide little help.

ARCHER: I mean, we have to look at it, but it's got too many variables to be something we can count on.

SMITH: It turns out that lots of states have data for COVID vaccinations that has health experts scratching their heads. In South Carolina, Asians, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders are lumped into the same category. In Utah, residents can pick more than one race. And Wyoming doesn't report racial or ethnic data at all.

Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, says that just as an uneven approach to containing the coronavirus led to a greater toll for Black and Latino communities, the inconsistent data collection is leaving the same groups out on vaccines.

KIRTSEN BIBBINS-DOMINGO: At the very least, we need the same uniform standards that every state is using and every location that administers vaccine is using so that we can have some comparisons and design better strategies to reach the populations we're trying to reach.

SMITH: In Missouri, the gaping vaccination disparities led state officials to change strategy in recent weeks and send more doses to urban centers like Kansas City, although state reports suggest that the disparities remain.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) You are worthy of my praise.

SMITH: Back at St. James United Methodist Church, pastor Jackie McCall has been talking with many congregants who say they're still nervous about the shots, and she's been encouraging them to get vaccinated.

JACKIE MCCALL: We want to be able to continue to be here, be in purpose and do the things that God has called us to do. So let's go ahead, and let's trust. Let's trust the process. Let's trust God, and let's trust the science.

SMITH: But trusting the vaccination data is something health care experts are having a difficult time doing. For NPR News, I'm Alex Smith in Kansas City.

SIMON: And that story was produced in partnership with KCUR and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.