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‘X’ Marks the Spot: Officials Map a Route Out of the Pandemic

  • August 01, 2021

By allowing officials to quickly spot vaccine deserts, pinpoint high-risk populations and target their resources more efficiently, digital maps have become crucial tools in the effort to ensure that vaccination campaigns leave no neighborhood behind.

As the virus raced across Wisconsin in the spring of 2020, officials in Milwaukee County became concerned about its unequal toll. In late March and early April, for instance, Black residents accounted for 69 percent of the Covid deaths in the county despite making up just 27 percent of its population, according to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee report.

These disparities were front of mind when the Covid-19 vaccines were finally authorized. “We wanted to make sure that we were equitably distributing this vaccine,” said David Crowley, the Milwaukee County executive.

They began categorizing census tracts according to their vaccination rates and their scores on a national “social vulnerability index.” The index uses data on 15 different social, economic and demographic factors — including the age, minority status and education levels of residents, as well as local poverty and unemployment rates — to calculate how susceptible a given community would be in the event of some kind of disaster, like a hurricane or a pandemic.

Then the officials displayed the results online on a color-coded map. In mid-March, when the county first released it, much of the city of Milwaukee was colored dark orange, signaling that the area had high levels of social vulnerability but low vaccination rates.

On the other hand, the suburbs, where the population is wealthier and whiter, were shaded a pale yellow, indicating that they had low scores on the vulnerability index but climbing vaccination rates. “And so there was this story of the haves and have-nots, or two different cities,” said Dr. Ben Weston, who oversees the medical aspects of the county’s Covid-19 response.

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