OKLAHOMA CITY — The state Department of Health plans to use $43 million in federal funding to combat racial disparities in vaccine uptake.

Floritta Pope, director of the Department’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity, said the state recently received the grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It will be used to address disparities across Oklahoma by focusing primarily on underserved racial, ethnic and rural populations.

Pope said they will be offering funding opportunities through competitive mini-grants so that the underserved can have access. The plan is to allocate about $6 million into community-based organizations and about $3 million to faith-based organizations. Another $3 million will be made available to tribes. Over $12 million will be allocated to rural areas, she said.

“This is going to help with mobilizing partnerships, expanding testing, improving the collection of data,” Pope said.

Nearly 1.4 million Oklahomans — or 40.9% — over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated. Nearly 1.6 million — or 48.5% — have received at least one dose, state epidemiological records show.

Several Black lawmakers, meanwhile, on Friday called for increased outreach to minority communities around the state in an effort to combat racial disparities.

State vaccination records show that Oklahomans 12 and older who identify as American Indian or Black have some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccine uptake rates. Only 18.5% of American Indians and 24.2% of Black Oklahomans are fully vaccinated, according to state epidemiological records. That’s compared with 34.8% of whites, 52.2% of Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 34.2% of Hispanics.

Uptake is also considerably lower in many of the state’s less populous counties compared with its urban ones.

Pope said that at the beginning of the pandemic, accessibility and availability of the vaccine was a big barrier, but that barrier has been reduced tremendously.

She also said there are a lot of outreach efforts going on across the state to distribute the vaccinations and spread accurate information, including through town halls and in churches.

State Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City, who serves as chair of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, said over the past few weeks that Oklahomans have watched COVID-19 case numbers climb, signaling the pandemic is far from over.

Lowe, who said his own parents just recently got vaccinated, said that African Americans are three times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, and two times more likely to die from it.

“We’ve got to start pressing the issue and making sure that not only we are safe, but our whole community is safe,” said State Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City.

State Rep. Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, who is also a Seminole Nation citizen, serves as co-chair for Health and Human Services for the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators.

Pittman said Oklahomans trust their doctors, and she wants to see more physicians administering the vaccines, particularly in minority communities.

She also suggested the state implement a vaccine incentive program using federal funds. She suggested paying $100 to those who get vaccinated.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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