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L.A. County's free H1N1 vaccine clinics have vaccinated few blacks, public health officials say

November 10, 2009 |  3:48 pm

Free H1N1 vaccine clinics in Los Angeles county have failed to vaccinate many African Americans, considered some of those most at risk of developing complications from the flu, public health officials told county leaders today.

“I’m disappointed we have not had a higher percentage of African Americans coming to these clinics,” Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, the county’s public health director, told county supervisors at their morning meeting. “I don’t think it’s lack of sites available. Some surveys suggest it’s lack of willingness to come forward, and some of that is historic.”

The acknowledgment comes less than a week after a Times/USC poll found that blacks in California were far less likely than other groups to say they planned to get the vaccine.

It remains unclear how many African Americans have been vaccinated countywide. The county requires those who wish to be vaccinated at free clinics to complete a vaccination form that includes their age, sex, race and other demographic information.

Public health officials have collected data from about 60,000 H1N1 vaccine recipients at public clinics, but Fielding said he could not release those numbers today. He said his staff still needs to weed out incomplete forms that may have slipped by clinic staff members overwhelmed by crowds and long lines. In all, about 113,000 people have been vaccinated at public clinics, officials said.

But officials who have seen preliminary figures say they are troubling. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes South Los Angeles, said today that early data show more Asians than African Americans have been vaccinated at clinics held at South L.A. County locations. According to a 2007 county study, the South service area, one of eight in the county for health services, is about 63% Latino, 33% African American, 2% white and less than 2% Asian/Pacific Islander and Native American.

The clinics are open to anyone, although public officials chose locations throughout the county in the hopes of reaching diverse populations.

The same Times poll that found blacks and Latinos were less likely than other groups to seek the vaccine found that Asians in California were the most likely to say they planned to get vaccinated.

Ridley-Thomas said public health officials should have anticipated low turnout among African Americans — who studies show are more likely to lack access to healthcare and less likely to get the seasonal flu vaccine — and done more outreach.

When Ridley-Thomas visited a county H1N1 clinic in Inglewood on Oct. 30, he said he saw few black faces.

"What has happened to date is not acceptable,” Ridley-Thomas said. “There is no way it is conceivable to me that with proper outreach the numbers would have looked like they did.”

Fielding said his office had planned an advertising campaign to raise awareness about the vaccine but canceled it before the first clinics opened because demand appeared certain to outstrip supply of the vaccine because of national manufacturing shortages.

He agreed today to retool the original radio and television ad campaign with the help of supervisors’ staff and launch it within the next few weeks. Fielding also agreed to work with neighborhood churches, schools and trusted public figures in the African American community, as well as to review clinic sites to make sure the vaccine is distributed equitably countywide.

About 5.5 million people belong to H1N1 flu priority groups countywide. As of this week, the county’s public and private healthcare providers had received 810,000 H1N1 flu vaccines total.

Eighteen county H1N1 flu clinics are scheduled through Sunday.

As of this week, public health officials expanded their list of priority groups eligible to receive the vaccine to include the obese, who recent studies show are at risk of complications from H1N1 flu. Other priority groups include pregnant women, people who live with or care for infants under 6 months old, healthcare and emergency services personnel, those ages 6 months to 24 and those ages 25 to 64 with chronic health problems or a compromised immune system.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske, reporting from the Hall of Administration