In the weeks since vaccinations began, one ZIP code in Richmond has had eight times more COVID-19 cases than another less than 5 miles away.
What separates them is the James River and resources.
Of the four ZIP codes harboring 60% of the city’s 7,470 cases since Dec. 14, the date the first vaccine shot was given at VCU Medical Center, three are in South Richmond. All four — 23234, 23225, 23224 and 23223 — are the farthest from established vaccination sites at the Richmond Raceway and Arthur Ashe Center.
They also hold the largest non-white populations in the city, with percentages ranging from 54% to more than 80% Black or Latino — two groups that, when combined, are barely 53% of the city’s residents.
And nearly a year into the pandemic, Black communities in Richmond have four times the hospitalizations of white patients, a disparity that outpaces state and national figures.
“We have and had a disproportionate rate of deaths and contracted the virus. That’s because we could not shelter in place. Our jobs didn’t allow that. We weren’t necessarily all the firefighters and the police officers,” Councilman Mike Jones said in an interview Wednesday, referring to the essential workers first in line for phase two according to Virginia Department of Health guidelines.
“But we were the ones working in the grocery stores. We’re the ones working in the restaurants, when people weren’t wearing masks. ... You’ve had Black and brown folks working since day one while schools were closed.”
On Wednesday, Jones — who represents a majority Black, Latino and immigrant district with older residents in South Richmond — lambasted the lack of access, transparency and data that’s left the most at-risk and eligible people unable to receive a vaccine that could save them.
Statewide, nearly half a million vaccinations do not have race and ethnicity recorded. Of those that do, 72% are white. Currently, no local breakdown of these demographics exists.
There are also no vaccination sites south of the James River, said Jones, and no available data to show whether providers chosen to distribute vaccines are within the hardest-hit ZIP codes. Health officials have said already-trusted providers will be essential among underserved neighborhoods, especially those in low-income areas.
CVS Health, which announced that Richmond is one of 11 localities in Virginia where its pharmacies will be distributing the vaccine, has not disclosed the locations that will be doing so.
ZIP code 23221, which is 87% white and state data shows as having the second-lowest number of cases in the city since December at 317, has at least five CVS locations within a 5-mile radius. ZIP code 23234, which is 75% Black or Latino and has 1,133 COVID cases, has one.
“The river is a dividing line in this city,” Jones said. “And I’m sick of that narrative. I’m sick of this reality. ... Everyone deserves easy access, a plan, to get the vaccine. It’s not happening.”
In a statement Wednesday, Richmond and Henrico Health Districts spokeswoman Cat Long agreed and noted upcoming mobile vaccination efforts starting this weekend that would prioritize older residents and Black and Latino communities in the East End, South Richmond and North Side.
This is in partnership with Bon Secours, VCU Health, community centers and churches, which Jones and Councilwoman Reva Trammell said in a Wednesday media briefing are ready to open up their doors for vaccination events.
The Richmond and Henrico Health Districts also plan to establish a permanent mass vaccination site in South Richmond by March while continuing to assess the barriers that inhibit vaccination access for eligible groups.
Among the confluence of obstacles is lack of transportation. A ZIP code in South Richmond with more than 1,100 cases is nearly 20 minutes away from a vaccination site by car and more than an hour on public transit. Registration phone lines and websites can take hours to navigate to the detriment of those without internet access or phones.
One of the metrics used for prioritizing individuals who filled out the vaccine interest forms, after age and race or ethnicity, is speed in which they signed up.
Long said the local health department is working to rectify the inequities by strategizing how to close the race and ethnicity gap by adding volunteers solely dedicated to entering the data and educating providers.
An emergency bill endorsed by Gov. Ralph Northam and proposed by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, would mandate the collection of race and ethnicity across Virginia once signed.
In another media briefing Wednesday, Mayor Levar Stoney said that while he appreciates the concern about access in South Richmond, and he’s spoken to local health officials about addressing the need, fixing the problem is tricky with a limited supply.
“There is no national strategy or plan for the dissemination of these vaccines to communities like Richmond, so we’re building an aircraft carrier and trying to operate it all at the same time,” he said. “But we have to recognize that there are people who are injured by the fact that we do not have a national plan — and that those individuals are Black and brown people, particularly those who are living in South Richmond.”
A state outreach plan geared toward Latinos, who are 20% of Richmond’s hospitalizations, set to roll out in the upcoming weeks, as Virginia approaches the one-year mark of its first case.
By the numbers
For the first time in almost two months, Virginia has dipped below a seven-day average of 3,600 new cases and a positivity rate of 11.3%. A month ago, the percentage of people testing positive was 17.4%.
The case count is a sharp drop from two weeks ago, when the state saw a 17,000-case spike in a two-day span.
Since Jan. 1, Virginia hasn’t recorded a single-day increase of more than 3,000. While data from earlier this week was slightly skewed due to upgrades in the Virginia Department of Health’s surveillance system affecting numbers, Wednesday marked the first day without a disclaimer.
Still, the state saw 2,959 new cases. On the same day last week, Virginia recorded 5,227.
The total caseload on Monday was 513,339.
Current COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by 72 on Wednesday, according to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association’s online dashboard, which is the most accurate representation of hospitalizations. The state’s hospitals had 2,545 COVID-19 patients.
Deaths from COVID-19 reached 6,575 on Tuesday, a 58-death increase from the day before.
COVID-19 figures for the Richmond area
Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico have had a total of 59,875 cases, 2,411 hospitalizations and 828 deaths.
Richmond has had 13,032 cases, 634 hospitalizations and 135 deaths.
The Chesterfield Health District, which consists of Chesterfield, Powhatan County and Colonial Heights, has had 22,002 cases, 780 hospitalizations and 246 deaths.
Henrico has had 18,886 cases, 782 hospitalizations and 345 deaths. Hanover has had 5,955 cases, 215 hospitalizations and 102 deaths.
Staff writers C. Suarez Rojas and John Ramsey contributed to this report.