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Are vaccines reaching communities in need? We don’t have enough data

The Pentagon committed to sending around 1,000 active duty troops to help vaccinate people across the nation after the White House promised to open community vaccination centers, increasing availability to those in need. Dr. Julie Morita, Executive Vice President of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a NewsHour funder, joins to discuss the challenge of equal distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Equal access to vaccine has been a challenge.

    Yesterday, the Pentagon committed to sending more than 1,000 active duty troops to help with vaccination efforts across the country. The announcement came on the heels of the White House promising to open community vaccination centers to increase availability of vaccines to communities in need.

    I recently spoke about the difficulties of getting vaccinations to communities who need it most with Dr. Julie Morita, Executive Vice President of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is a funder of NewsHour.

    Dr. Morita, we know that the virus itself has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color. When it comes to vaccinations, are we seeing disparities again?

  • Dr. Julia Morita:

    Hari, yeah, the challenge that we're experiencing right now is that the data that are available related to who's getting vaccinated are very limited.

    The CDC issued an MMWR earlier this week where they demonstrated that just a little bit under 50 percent of the data of the vaccines that are administered actually have race and ethnicity data associated with it. And so as a result of that, we don't really have a complete picture of who's getting the administered vaccines and who's not. So it is critical, having disaggregated data by race, by ethnicity, by geography, and occupation, are critical for us to know our frame is working, are we being successful?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You're kind of pointing at two problems here. One is the actual disparity based on the data that we have. And then that second problem is the data that we have. Are all the places, we have vaccination centers popping up all over the country, are they all making sure to collect that information, to figure out who's getting it at what time, what day and so forth?

  • Dr. Julia Morita:

    So it seems so easy to be able to just report by race or ethnicity who's getting vaccinated. But in order to do that, the data systems actually have to have the fields to collect that information and they have to do it in a standard kind of way.

    In addition to that, the data systems have to connect to each other so that a mass immunization clinic or a retail pharmacy or a hospital can actually report the same information into one system so all the data can be analyzed.

    So there's personnel challenges in terms of having enough people to do this kind of data collection. And there's actually a system level challenges that are in place that make it difficult to actually exchange the kind of information so it can all be in one place.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This also gets to that kind of real estate adage, location, location, location. Right? I mean, you have to make this available where communities already exist that you know demographically.

  • Dr. Julia Morita:

    That's right, so I think one of the challenges is there's a couple of aspects in terms of how we can make sure that the communities who are at highest risk for dying or being hospitalized are actually having access to the vaccine. And the first part of it is really the accessibility or the location of where the sites are. Are they in the right places? And then also, are they easily accessible? Can people pick up the phone and make an appointment? Can they walk in, are they available after hours or on weekends or do people have to try to take off time from work? So all those factors come into play in terms of how accessible the vaccine is.

    But in addition to that, in some of our communities that are at highest risk for getting sick and dying, those communities also have hesitancy or distrust of the vaccine, of health care systems, of the government. And so they may not want to get the vaccine.

    So simultaneously to making the vaccines available in the right communities and making them easy to get appointments, we have to also be working with the communities to understand what are their questions? What are their concerns? What information do they need? Who do they want to hear from? Having those kinds of questions answered and then working with the community to address those issues will help us to overcome this distrust and hesitancy that some of the communities actually have.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The irony is that there were stories in New York, for example, that there was a vaccine location in Washington Heights, a predominantly Latino and Hispanic neighborhood. But the people that were getting the vaccinations there were predominantly white and they were coming from outside the area because that was one of the most accessible places. So, you know, it's frustrating on two fronts.

  • Dr. Julia Morita:

    So we experienced this in the past when I was health commissioner in Chicago, I was responsible for the H1N1 vaccine clinics and rolling those programs out. And what we saw was in our predominantly Black and Latino communities, we were having people coming from all over the city to get the vaccine because the demand in those communities was just not that high.

    And part of it was those same kinds of challenges. If the clinics are scheduled during work days or if you have to make an appointment online and you don't have high speed internet, or if you have to drive a car to get some place, those kinds of barriers make it very difficult for the people from within the communities to take advantage of the opportunities.

    But also these communities and individuals have questions or concerns about the safety or the efficacy of the vaccine. And we really have to be making sure that they're hearing from trusted messengers, doctors from their community, faith leaders in their communities, community leaders, saying that these vaccines are safe and effective and that they got their vaccines and they did well with them and they want other people to get them because they're so important. So it's multiple things have to be happening to make sure that we don't end up with continued problems with higher rates among communities of color. All right.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what did you do in Chicago and what could we do on a national scale? I mean, is it seeing influencers on Instagram, getting shots? Is it I mean, how do you find the people that the hesitants trust?

  • Dr. Julia Morita:

    I would have loved to see, since the vaccine has been rolling out as if there have been health care providers, leaders within communities and people of color standing up and saying, look, I feel like this vaccine is safe and effective and I'm getting the vaccines and watch me get my vaccine. That's all really important. But that's just part of the puzzle.

    What we did in Chicago was the beginnings of engagement of health care, sorry engaging with the community. So we had trust trusted organizations and leaders reaching out into the communities. And some are already doing that in the U.S.

    So we know in Chicago and New Jersey, they actually have community health workers, community organizations that are trusted within the communities, helping their community members register for the vaccine, but also asking them, what information do you need? How do we get this information to you? And then helping them to get their questions answered so they feel confident and comfortable in the vaccine so that they will demand of vaccines just like everybody else.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Dr. Julie Morita of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, thanks so much.

  • Dr. Julia Morita:

    Thank you.

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