Even as East Baton Rouge Parish ramps up coronavirus vaccinations, city-parish leaders are questioning why few of the distribution sites are located in areas with high Black populations.

Only three of the 25 sites in the parish are in North Baton Rouge, an area with a far larger Black population than the southern parts of the city.

"As your Mayor-President, I want you to know this weighs heavy on my heart," Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said in a statement Friday. "Access to healthcare has been a priority for my administration since day one."

Broome acknowledged the disparity following the publication of a National Public Radio story about the lack of vaccination sites in predominantly Black and Hispanic areas in southern cities. The NPR story focused heavily on Baton Rouge. 

The state Department of Health, which decides which providers get the vaccine, acknowledged the disparity Friday and said it was working to address it.

“It's a top priority, and it has been since the very beginning, both in how we think about how to allocate vaccines and how we reach out to communities,"  said Aly Neel, spokeswoman for LDH. "It doesn't mean we're there ... and we recognize that. We believe it gets better every week because we listen to the regions about where there are disparities."

LDH began distributing doses of the vaccine to 100 pharmacies across the state to act as vaccine distribution centers at the beginning of January. That list, which Gov. John Bel Edwards said was chosen at random from those that had enrolled with LDH, has since expanded to more pharmacies and added grocery stores as more doses have come available to the state.

But there are fewer pharmacies and grocery stores in North Baton Rouge — something city leaders and health experts have long said contributes to worse health outcomes in the area.

“We think about randomness as being fair, but if there’s not an equal distribution to begin with of whatever it is you’re randomizing, you’re not going to get a distribution that’s going to wind up meeting the needs of all sectors,” said Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University.

Broome announced Friday the creation of a community task force to examine how vaccine distribution in the city can be made more equitable and to encourage vaccination against COVID-19 in minority communities.

Jared Hymowitz, director of Broome's Healthy City Initiative, said the city reaches out to community partners as doses become available and encourages independent pharmacies to enroll as a vaccination provider. 

"As we have done in the past with Covid-19 testing, we believe our public-private partnerships will help address vaccine access in our underserved communities," Hymowitz said in a statement Friday.

More than a dozen additional sites have enrolled with LDH and the Centers for Disease Control and are awaiting approval, Hymowitz added. 

Broome wrote to President Joe Biden shortly after his inauguration to request an increase in vaccine doses coming to Baton Rouge.

Councilwoman Erika Green, who represents District 5 on the Metro Council in North Baton Rouge, called the disparity “unfortunate.”

“The hope is that the health care community and the city is working to find locations,” Green said. “I know that there are a number of efforts to address messaging for increasing participation in vaccinations, but if the product is not available, it doesn't matter how the messaging is.”

But the city is on the right course to address the problem, Green said.

The Baton Rouge region has seen some of its lowest new coronavirus case totals since mid November after a surge over the holiday season. New cases peaked around Jan. 10 and have since trended mostly downward, according to state data.

But the new case numbers are still well above other points in the year since the pandemic began in Louisiana.

With recent reports of the more infectious U.K. variant of the coronavirus in Louisiana and the upcoming Mardi Gras season, Hassig predicted a fourth surge in cases in the coming weeks.

“It’s going down now, that’s great, but we can’t assume that it won’t just turn around and go back up in a couple of weeks,” Hassig said. “Trending downward for a period of time is good, longer is better, but any time we’ve come down from one of these peaks, we’ve never come down to what would be a really low level of transmission.”

Reporter Terry Jones contributed to this report.