Bangor Drug Manager Amber Morin shows the Moderna coronavirus vaccine packaging on Jan. 12. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine released its first demographic data on coronavirus vaccinations on Wednesday, but high non-response rates could make it difficult to answer questions about racial equity in a state that has seen significant racial disparities in cases during the pandemic.

More than 92,000 Mainers have received at least first doses of the vaccine as of Wednesday, while 28,700 have received both doses, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The first phase targeted health care workers, residents of long term care facilities, first responders and certain other workers considered critical to the state’s virus response. Vaccinations were extended to Mainers age 70 and up last week.

While the new data provide insight into how the vaccine has been allocated in Maine so far, gaps in the data with respect to race and ethnicity leave questions as to whether the distribution has been equitable. Other states have seen similar data problems.

As a result of the state’s allocation formula, the Mainers who have been vaccinated so far skew older, with about 55 percent of first doses having gone to people over age 50. Women are more likely to have been vaccinated than men, accounting for about 68 percent of first doses and 73 percent of second doses. That is no surprise as women make up nearly 78 percent of health care workers in Maine, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

While the state data includes gender and age for nearly every vaccine recipient, about 40 percent of people who received vaccinations did not provide information about their race or ethnicity. The state said it is working with hospitals and other community partners to better collect that information. Sites are required to report race and ethnicity information, but people are not required to provide it to get vaccinated.

That lack of data makes it difficult to tell whether the state’s early vaccine distribution has been equitable, said Kathy Kilrain del Rio, director of campaigns and health care advocacy at Maine Equal Justice.

“We do need to spend some time thinking about what can we do to get a better sense of who is actually getting [the vaccine],” Kilrain del Rio said, “to make sure that, if we’re seeing disproportionate harm caused to certain communities, especially Mainers of color, especially black Mainers, that we’re addressing that harm by getting them the vaccine.”

Maine saw one of the greatest racial disparities in coronavirus cases in the U.S. early in the pandemic, as workplace outbreaks and poor housing conditions led to significant spread of the virus in some immigrant communities in Portland and Lewiston. The gap has narrowed somewhat since then as more outbreaks occurred in predominantly white areas, but Black Mainers still represent 5.2 percent of coronavirus cases in Maine despite making up only 1.4 percent of the state’s population, according to Maine CDC data.

Among vaccine recipients so far who did report their race or ethnicity, about 1.1 percent were Black or African American, while 96.6 percent were white. That could reflect the eligibility requirements, as older Mainers are more likely to be white, though Black Mainers are slightly overrepresented among health care workers, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research analysis.

Issues in reporting vaccination data related to race and ethnicity are not unique to Maine. A report last week from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health care research organization, found that the majority of states were not reporting any data on the race or ethnicity of vaccine recipients. Among states that were sharing that data, several still reported that race and ethnicity were unknown for more than half of patients who received vaccines.

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