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In Ohio, putting boots on the ground to overcome inequities in vaccinations

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A recent analysis by Kaiser Health News finds Black and Latino citizens are getting vaccines at significantly lower rates in many states. This is especially worrying given disparities in COVID-19 death rates, with Black, Indigenous and Latino people dying at much higher rates than white people. Dr. Mysheika Roberts, public health commissioner of Columbus, Ohio, joins Stephanie Sy to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even as President Biden's team is ramping up plans for production of COVID vaccines, there were also sober warnings that it will take well through the summer to vaccinate enough Americans.

    Here's CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    Now is the time to remain vigilant.

    If we continue on the current trajectory, the CDC's most recent national ensemble forecasts predicts that 479,000 to 514,000 COVID-19 deaths will be recorded by February 20, 2021.

    But if we are united in action, we can turn things around. Continuing to expand safe, effective vaccination is key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic and bringing our country back to health.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. is by no means the only country struggling with vaccine supply and demand.

    Today, a battle escalated between the E.U. and vaccine maker AstraZeneca.

    Back here, there are major concerns over vaccine supply and equity.

    Stephanie Sy looks at — has our report.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, a recent analysis by Kaiser Health News finds Black and Latino citizens are getting vaccines at significantly lower rates in a number of states, especially worrying, given the major disparities in death rates, which public health officials reminded us of today.

    As you can see on this chart, Black, indigenous and Latino people are dying a much higher rate than white people.

    Here to talk about these equity concerns, I'm joined by Dr. Mysheika Roberts, the public health commissioner of Columbus, Ohio.

    Dr. Roberts, thank you so much for joining us.

    I know you have been focused on these issues. And, in fact, I have heard you say in the past that, there in Columbus, public health officials have an equity agenda. What does that mean in practical terms?

  • Mysheika Roberts:

    Yes. Well, thanks for having me.

    And, yes, here in Columbus, Ohio, our mayor, Mayor Andy Ginther, has an equity agenda for our city. And it does involve health. And he has declared racism as a public health issue, which has really caused my department, as well as many health agencies in town, to focus their work on looking at the health inequities that exist and how we can work to overcome them.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What does that mean in terms of the current vaccination program?

    For example, are you going directly to those neighborhoods, those Black and brown communities where the vaccine is needed the most? Are you deploying mobile clinics at this point to bring the vaccine to those that might not be able to access it?

  • Mysheika Roberts:

    Well, really, we're doing all of the above that you mentioned.

    So, here in our community is no different than across the nation. Black and brown individuals have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, whether that's in cases, hospitalizations, or even deaths. So, it's more important than ever that we also get that same population vaccinated with the new COVID-19 vaccine.

    So, we are really putting boots on the ground. We're working with grassroots organizations trying to get the message out that these vaccines are safe and effective, who should get the vaccine, and when the vaccine is available for those groups.

    We're also doing some mobile clinics, where we're going to those neighborhoods, we're going to those organizations where we know have a large population of Black and brown individuals, and we're providing those vaccines for them at a location that's convenient for them.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You know, you talk about misinformation, and I saw a video of you, Dr. Roberts, in which you felt the need to say that the vaccine does not include a tracking device, which I think really speaks to the misinformation and conspiracy theories that are plaguing the vaccination efforts.

    How big of a challenge is that there?

  • Mysheika Roberts:

    Well, I think the misinformation is a huge challenge across the nation.

    But, yes, there are some people who think when we say the vaccine includes nanoparts, nanoproteins, which, in the health care field, just means very small, some people have interpreted that as nanotechnology, and that the vaccine actually has the ability to track people.

    So, they don't want to get vaccinated because they think, by getting vaccinated, the government can now track them. And I remind people all the time that the smartphones that we use every day can track you much more effectively than any vaccine that we could provide.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And, of course, Dr. Roberts, when it comes to the mistrust in the Black community, there is a history of mistreatment, whether it came to the Tuskegee experiment or Henrietta Lacks.

    How do you counter that history and rebuild that trust?

  • Mysheika Roberts:

    Well, first, I think we have to acknowledge the history and acknowledge that Black and brown individuals have a reason to distrust or mistrust our health care community.

    And then we have to let them know that, because of those incidents, because of Tuskegee, because of Henrietta Lacks, so much has changed in our health care arena to protect individuals that look like me and to protect everyone. And so that's why we have informed consent now.

    That's some of the reason why we have HIPAA, is to protect our health information and to make people — make sure people understand, if they're taking a risk, what that risk might be. And so, one, we have to acknowledge it. Then we have to let them know that this vaccine has gone through all the safety measures.

    The vaccines we have on the market now are available for anyone over the age of 16 or 18, depending on the product you're looking at. And these vaccines are being given to everyone, whether you're white, Black, brown, or purple, and so first just identifying why they have that mistrust and acknowledging that, and then telling them how our community has changed as a result of those incidents that plagued our communities.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I just want to ask one quick question broadly of how the vaccination efforts are going there.

    I understand that you're now in the phase where you're offering the vaccine to those 75 and older, as well as some people with disabilities, congenital and medical disorders. How is it all going? What can be improved?

  • Mysheika Roberts:

    Well, I think, from my perspective, what we're doing at Columbus Public Health, it's going well.

    We would all love to have more vaccines. And, obviously, we'd love to be able to vaccinate everyone. We do have this phased-in approach that our state put in place. And we're following that. Next week, we will start vaccinating staff that work in K-12 schools. So, we're getting a lot more doses of the vaccine next week to accommodate that population.

    But like everyone is saying across the country, if we had more vaccines, we could vaccinate more people.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So many priorities you're juggling.

    Dr. Mysheika Roberts, thank you so much for joining us with the perspective from Columbus, Ohio.

  • Mysheika Roberts:

    Thanks for having me. Take care.

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