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For real vaccine equity, invest in community-based solutions

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Mask-wearing is back, the Delta variant is pervasive, and we are now officially into another surge of COVID-19. With fewer than half the nation fully vaccinated, powerful right-wing voices continue demonizing vaccines as some sort of conspiracy. We believe it’s time for a reality check.

With more than 600,000 dead, we are in a critical, race-against-time moment in which vaccinating large swaths of the nation is a matter of life and death. We believe there’s both a pragmatic and a moral path to bringing an end to COVID-19 in this country. It begins by engaging meaningfully with the communities hardest hit by the virus – the same communities that have also borne the brunt of generations of systemic racism, oppression and medical injustice. 

To deliver health to these individuals and families, we must invest in and collaborate with trusted messengers: community-based organizations with practical know-how on breaking down barriers to access. This is the clearest pathway to vaccinating millions of people of color for whom the vaccines are still out of reach. 

Community-based organizations have been critical to achieving a high vaccination rate in my congressional district in the East Bay. In Alameda County, as of this week, more than 82 percent of adults and older children have received at least one shot. Community-based organizations like the Roots Community Health Center, the Native American Health Center and Asian Health Services, just to name a few, have done extraordinary work to provide access to vaccines in our community. Faith-based organizations such as Oakland’s Allen Temple Baptist Church also have been key partners in hosting vaccine clinics and getting out the word about the safety, efficacy and importance of the vaccines.

At Partners In Health (PIH), a global social justice organization, we collaborate with community groups doing the hard work of eliminating barriers, such as limited hours at vaccine clinics, complex scheduling and registration systems, English-only health materials, inaccessible sites far from public transportation, and vaccine and health care misinformation and mistrust. 

For instance, the Chicagoland Vaccine Partnership (CVP), supported by PIH, brings together community-based organizations, public health experts, government and philanthropists to focus on delivering vaccines to neglected neighborhoods in the greater Chicago area. The CVP worked with local funders to provide rapid response grants that allowed organizations that had focused on mitigating youth violence in pockets of the city to pivot and conduct vaccine outreach in those same neighborhoods. Similarly, organizations that ran food pantries and youth programs were funded so that people could get vaccine information and social support at places they knew and trusted. These are the trusted, local messengers who can deliver honest public health information, increase vaccine confidence, and address specific obstacles to vaccination for vulnerable and medically underserved communities. 

This is why I fought along with my colleagues in Congress to fund this work through the COVID Community Care Act, which led directly to the inclusion in the American Rescue Plan of $7.4 billion towards a public health workforce, including the $250 million set aside for community-based organizations through the Health Research and Services Administration. 

This is a laudable first step to ensuring greater vaccine access in the short-term and rebuilding a more equitable U.S. health infrastructure for the future. But we are still seeing alarming disparities in the rates of vaccinations from state to state, community to community. In Alameda County, only about 58 percent of African Americans have received one shot, compared to the overall rate of 82 percent. In some places, white people are getting vaccinated at three times the rate compared to Black people. 

Investing in the community-based health workforce is not only a smart and equitable strategy – it’s also a solution that will outlast this pandemic and equitably serve communities well into the future. As we move into a new acute phase of this pandemic, and as we try to counter the reckless disinformation about vaccines coming from Republican leaders and conservative media, Congress and the administration should recognize this fact and increase support for these groups going forward. 

Our health care system, and wellbeing, depend on these local partners who are, quite literally, saving lives.

Barbara Lee represents California’s 13th District and Sheila Davis is CEO of Partners In Health.

Tags Barbara Lee COVID-19 Deployment of COVID-19 vaccines Vaccine

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