Health officials use mapping for equitable vaccine access

Census data drives outreach in Ingham Co.

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Officials at the Ingham County Health Department are leaning on census data to identify and drive outreach to areas of the county that are lagging behind on COVID-19 vaccination rates. 

Among the areas that need some help catching up: south Lansing zip codes 48911 and 48910, as well as swathes in ZIP codes 48906 (the north side) and 48912 (the east side). 

County Health Officer Linda Vail shared parts of the new data program that helps her team identify areas needing increased attention. A heat map guides health officials to certain neighborhoods that could use some extra help.

“My team uses this to plan their community and neighborhood and strike-team clinics,” Vail said.

Those tracts with lower vaccination rates will be targeted for pop-up clinics, “strike team” vaccination initiatives and distribution of informative literature about the coronavirus vaccine.

The U.S. Census Bureau defines census tracts as having 1,200 to 8,000 people — preferably 4,000. This allows the bureau to prepare the census every 10 years and track specific community-level data to build a data tool called a Social Vulnerability Index.

The index is another key piece of data used by Vail and her team to determine high-risk locations to reach out to for testing and vaccination. The index identifies income, race and other factors in determining how the area may be impacted by social obstacles in accessing medical care or have higher exposure to environment-related health issues and economic obstacles.

“That’s what’s so great about this tool,” Vail said. “Show me on a map. That’s why this is such a great tool for me. Once you zoom in, you can see better where the issues are in access.”

Vail said she has been using the census data program for months to determine where vaccines could be distributed to yield the greatest impact across the county. That included shunting some shots to a pharmacy in Stockbridge to increase access to vaccination in that rural community.

Several census tracts surrounding Sparrow Hospital on Michigan Avenue have lower vaccination rates than the countywide average as well.

“I did share this map with Sparrow and said, ‘Look at this map. Look at the areas shaded pink. Those would be great places to go,” Vail said.

The data also shows that Okemos and Haslett residents are getting shots in larger numbers. Those communities tend to have more access to healthcare than others, Vail explained.

But the southern edge of the county — like in Onondaga and Leslie — have significantly lower vaccine rates. While those tend to be the more politically conservative areas, it’s unclear how much vaccine hesitancy compared to access concerns plays a role there, Vail said.

To help mitigate those disparities, she said that mass vaccination clinics have been centered at the Michigan State University Pavilion, at least 30 minutes north of those communities.

“We have to wait and see what is happening in those communities when we start doing more outreach,” Vail said. “That will show us whether this is a hesitancy issue or an access issue.”

Outreach is a key part of the process of increasing vaccination in the county, Vail added. And that is going to require innovation in how the health department targets certain populations.

“You can’t just do a pop-up vaccination clinic and expect people to show up,” she said. “You need to let them know what is happening and when. That’s where flyers and outreach are going to come into play.”

The Ingham County Democratic Party is getting in front of the process. The group launched a weekly “lit drop” this month in the 48911 ZIP code. And the party is particularly well placed to do such activities; door-to-door activities are standard protocol for pushing voter turnout. Those teams can canvass entire neighborhoods in one day, passing out literature on the way.

County Commissioner Derrell Slaughter and eight volunteers dropped 1,000 flyers throughout his district on May 8. Those materials included information on how to access the vaccine — not only through the Ingham County Health Department, but also at various local pharmacies.

Vail said that outreach is directly in line with her department’s overall vaccine outreach strategy.

“Once we identify those areas in need of information, we are going to rely on groups to help us get the word out — whether that’s churches or neighborhood groups or other groups,” Vail said. “We are going to need that help to reach everyone.”

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