A closer look at who’s getting vaccinated in Delaware — and who’s not

Meredith Newman Jared Whalen
Delaware News Journal

Editors’ note: This story has been updated to reflect the reason why holes exist in the state’s data of vaccinations, broken down by zip code. Nearly a week after this story’s publication, state officials reversed its explanation. This week, state health officials told Delaware Online the state software suppresses data if less than 2,500 people of a certain race or ethnicity lived in a respective zip code. This means that the race data of each zip code is accurate for the groups listed, though for some areas it still doesn’t show a complete picture.

Delaware ZIP codes with the highest percentage of white residents – and the oldest, richest and most highly educated – also have the largest percentages of fully vaccinated Delawareans.

Meanwhile, ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates are often home to people whose median income and education levels are lower than the state average.

An analysis by Delaware Online/The News Journal found that a larger portion of these residents lives in poverty.

Delaware Online/The News Journal examined the state’s vaccine distribution data, broken down by ZIP code. Within each community, the data showed how many residents are fully vaccinated. But when looking at the race data available for each ZIP code, the information contains some holes.

Specialist Ashley Jacobs with the Delaware Army National Guard, right, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to Odessa Jackson Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, at Living Grace Worship Cathedral Church in Middletown, Del.

The News Journal used census race data to see at a bird’s-eye view how the ZIP codes compared. As of now, it is not possible to know the racial breakdown of who is and is not receiving the vaccine in a particular ZIP code. 

The overarching narrative is still clear: Lewes and Greenville, towns with residents who are mostly white and older, have the highest percentage of people fully vaccinated residents with more than a quarter of their populations having received shots. 

ZIP codes with a higher percentage of Black and brown residents are lagging.

Georgetown, a town that was the center of a COVID-19 hot spot in 2020, has vaccinated 9% of its residents. The ZIP code covering downtown and south Wilmington, one of the poorest areas in Delaware, has just 6% of its residents fully vaccinated. 

The ZIP code with the lowest vaccination rate is home to the University of Delaware’s main campus. Most young adults are not yet eligible for the vaccine. 

Experts say this falls in line with what is being seen nationally. Older Americans are making up a vast majority of vaccine distribution. While there is some vaccine hesitancy among Black and Latinos, experts say standing structures of inequality have played a key role in why vaccine disparities exist. 

Roseanne Donofrio of Smyrna, Del., receives the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during the first day of a six-day vaccination event at Dover International Speedway.

Gov. John Carney has acknowledged these low vaccination rates in communities of color – and how it reflects the need to improve how the health care system serves minorities. 

“The need to do better really has been put in front of us,” Carney said earlier this month. “These folks are the kind of foundation of our workforce, front-line workers across the board, and they deserve quality health care and health outcomes as well.”

ZIP code data helps provide a detailed look at the state’s vaccination efforts, community by community. 

Yet not all states and major cities are publicly providing this data. And those that do, like New York City, are not releasing a breakdown of racial demographics for each ZIP code.

Delaware is doing both, as a way to be transparent, said Jen Brestel, spokeswoman for the Division of Public Health. From the beginning of the pandemic, Delawareans had called for the state to provide localized data, so people could see the virus’s toll on their community, she said. 

“Our goal is not to suppress that information,” she said. “We want people to see, ‘Yeah we do have some gaps here. This ZIP code is maybe impacted at a different capacity than this ZIP code, and we know that we need to reach those areas.’”

“So I think it's really about transparency,” she said, “so that people know the data we are looking at and they can kind of see for themselves where we are seeing improvement.” 

But the data does not present a complete picture. 

Data for 17 ZIP codes is not available due to the number of doses administered being too small to report, officials said. These ZIP codes, seven of which are in New Castle County, consist of areas that have populations of less than 3,500 people, but in total adds up to nearly 18,500 people.

And when looking at race data for a particular zip code, some data might be missing. State officials said the state software suppresses data if less than 2,500 people of a certain race or ethnicity lived in a respective zip code.

Angela Shen, a vaccine expert and research scientist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the main priority of collecting vaccination data is to track the process of the vaccine being received and then distributed. 

While race data is an important factor to collect in order to close disparity gaps, Shen said, it’s not the sole purpose of these registries. 

“Like your Toyota Corolla probably isn't designed to do the Indy 500,” Shen said. “But it can, you'll just come in last.”

Four months into vaccine distribution efforts, the state has struggled to reach Black and Latino residents. This is made clear in the ZIP code data: Areas with predominant communities of color have some of the lowest vaccination rates. 

Wilmington ZIP codes 19802 and 19801, which both have Black populations of more than 70%, have vaccination rates of 7% and 6%, respectively, according to the data. 

State officials attribute the low vaccination rates to several reasons, particularly the makeup of the beginning phases skewing more white. Yet advocates, particularly in the Latino community, have blamed it on the state’s weak outreach efforts. 

When analyzing ZIP code data, it’s important to factor in the age-adjusted population because older residents were the first to get in line for the vaccine, said Jennifer Horney, an epidemiologist and University of Delaware professor.

Because of this, it makes sense for Sussex County towns, such as Lewes and Rehoboth Beach, to have higher rates, she said. The county has a large and growing senior population. 

Many of the residents living in the ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates are on average younger. 

People line up outside Seeds of Greatness Bible Church Friday afternoon near New Castle to get their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

While vaccine hesitancy is a factor for some, Horney said that should not serve as an overarching excuse for why states like Delaware are seeing disparities. 

“It’s not OK to just say it’s because of trust and they don’t want the vaccine,” she said. “We have to make sure we have an equitable way of getting the vaccine. And not use (hesitancy) as an excuse.”

“If we’re still in this situation in three weeks, when we’ve opened up to 50 and older,” she said, “then I would think we really have to revisit with equity with much greater effort.”

Shen, the vaccine expert and CHOP researcher, noted that the vaccine supply is going to “change very quickly” in the coming weeks, with states having more doses than people actually wanting the vaccine. 

The overarching goal, she said, is to get as many people vaccinated as possible – but also in a fair way. 

“I would use that data to hone in and tailor my vaccination program because you don't need to just get certain people vaccinated,” Shen said. “You need to get a large proportion of your community vaccinated, of your state vaccinated, of the country vaccinated, of the world vaccinated. 

“The virus doesn't just stop at your township or at the state of Delaware or at the ‘Welcome to Pennsylvania' sign."

Contact Meredith Newman at (302) 324-2386 or at mnewman@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MereNewman.

Jared Whalen is a graphics and data reporter. Contact him at jwhalen@delawareonline.com or on Twitter @jared_whalen.