Getty Images

Black South Carolinians have been getting the vaccine at a higher rate than white residents this summer, closing what was almost a double-digit percentage gap between the two demographics just a few short months ago, according to data from Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).

As of Sept. 12, 39.9% of white South Carolinians were completely vaccinated, compared to 37.4% of Black residents. In August, when white residents sat at 37%, Black residents lagged behind at 33%. 

Data via SCDHEC

“It is difficult to pinpoint specific reasons for why various demographics are hesitant to get vaccinated,” said DHEC media relations director Ron Aiken. “From a public health standpoint, we understand that we’re in unprecedented times and that the virus and the vaccine both come with questions.”

The Black community has been hit harder by the pandemic than other ethnic groups, according to National Public Radio reports throughout the pandemic. African American deaths were nearly two times greater than expected based on their share of the population.

The stark numbers are partially due to disparities in health care access, gaps in income, education and wealth and harsher housing conditions, and partially due to a cultural and historical mistrust of the health care system.

But with vaccination rates increasing for Black residents and all but grinding to a halt for white residents, many are left wondering why. 

Sweat | Provided

“It’s a very complex multivariate problem that doesn’t lend itself to easy explanation,” said Dr. Michael Sweat, director of the Medical University of South Carolina’s (MUSC) Center for Global Health. “Just understanding all those complex factors is complicated.”

Sweat attributes a lot of the variation in vaccination rates and the changes in rates to ease of access.

Early on, it was easier to get access to vaccination services in larger cities, where medical complexes like MUSC operated, he said. This left rural and more impoverished communities, predominantly populated by African Americans out of the loop, Sweat said.

But growing efforts to do more targeted and community-based vaccination campaigns by MUSC and others have helped alleviate many of the hardships associated with getting vaccinated. And that goes beyond simply offering a vaccine.

“Throughout the pandemic, DHEC has partnered with various race and ethnic groups and leaders of these communities to increase awareness and promote vaccinations,” Aiken said. “Our goal is to answer as many of these questions as we can and provide factual data and information so South Carolinians can make informed decisions for themselves and their families.”

But ease-of-access isn’t the only metric to blame for slowing vaccination rates among white communities, Sweat said. 

“There’s definitely a lot of misinformation, conspiracy theories — it’s explained by those things — fear of microchips being in it and all the things you’ve seen,” he said. 

While these fears aren’t unique to white people, studies published by the Pew Research Center show less than half of those surveyed who lean Republican have faith in health experts, and as many as 63% believe the pandemic has been exaggerated. 

Similar lines are drawn when looking at racial demographics.

Leading up to the pandemic, an anti-vaccination movement was growing in both size and influence. 

“A lot of it is driven by what I would call misinformation, and that has been pervasive all along,” Sweat said.

Moving forward, he said, it will become more important to try and understand the beliefs of those who put their faith in vaccines and those who don’t. 

“What we have got to do is try to understand all these beliefs and do our best to educate and dispel myths as we go forward and chip away at this,” Sweat said. “If we don’t get these numbers up, we’re going to continue to deal with these cyclical outbreaks until, unfortunately, a very large proportion of people ultimately get infected and gain immunity through that. But that’s a terrible way to go.”

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.