To vaccinate America’s children equitably, utilize community leaders

We know COVID-19 has brought seasons of loss into our communities and families. I was particularly devastated to learn from a recent study that one in every 500 children in the U.S. had a parent or caregiver die in a 15-month period from COVID-19. This means more than 120,000 children lost someone who mattered — someone who cared for them, ensured their well-being and tried every single day to protect them and give them what they need to thrive. 

We know that this loss is especially pronounced for our most vulnerable children. Sixty-five percent of those orphaned by COVID were children of color, with American Indian and Alaska Native and Black children experiencing the highest rate of parental or caregiver loss. 

The hopeful approval of a pediatric vaccine for COVID-19 can provide one additional protection for communities, adults and children of color who have experienced such deep, personal and devastating loss over the past 18 months. As health officials work on plans to roll out the pediatric vaccine, they must seize the opportunity to work with communities and focus on equity to ensure the vaccine is available and accessible to children everywhere across the country. 

The good news? It’s possible. 

Made to Save, a national grassroots mobilization effort to build trust in COVID-19 vaccines and ensure equitable access among communities of color, recently outlined barriers that prevent the vaccine for adults and older children from reaching many people of color. These findings offer important lessons health officials should consider when they roll out the pediatric vaccine. 

Public health practitioners should partner with pediatricians, community groups, faith-based organizations, local businesses and other leaders who are trusted messengers within their communities to disseminate culturally-tailored information that responds to the many real and valid questions from community members. While some people may simply need help identifying good sources of information to address their concerns, others may require deeper, more personal engagement with a trusted messenger, especially our immigrant communities. 

Location also matters. Vaccination sites should be designed with the needs of the communities’ children and families in mind and staffed by people who have community trust and can field questions directly in the language spoken by residents. These conveniently located sites should keep hours that accommodate people who are not able to take time off from work, and who may have limited transportation options. 

Using this hyper-local approach to vaccine access is working for many tribal nations. Indigenous communities in the U.S. have suffered the highest rates of death, overall, from COVID-19. The Navajo Nation launched a vaccine campaign tailored to its members, sharing information about the vaccine and responding to questions over local radio and trusted social media channels. 

Tribal nurses gave vaccine priority to tribal leaders and Native-language speakers to instill trust in the vaccines among the broader community. How was this possible? The federal government cut bureaucratic processes and provided tribal leaders control over vaccine distribution. 

The Navajo Nation example is a source of tremendous optimism about the potential to get the vaccine roll-out right for all communities, including the 70 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives who do not live in the rural mountain west, but who can undoubtedly benefit from their success. 

On the coast of the state of Mississippi, where it’s estimated that at least 80 percent of Vietnamese Americans have been vaccinated, community advocates identified a language gap, convinced local health officials to create task forces devoted to closing it, and relied on community organizations to help foster equitable vaccine distribution. As of August, Asian and Pacific Islander residents had the highest vaccination rates of all racial and ethnic groups in Mississippi. 

As states across the country report a rise in pediatric hospitalizations due to COVID-19, health officials owe it to our children to correct some of the past missteps in vaccine distribution when they are ready to roll out a pediatric vaccine. Federal and state lawmakers can help by allocating resources to advance hyper-local solutions that maximize access to the vaccine and other proven mitigation measures like masking and testing. Multi-level government collaboration and community partnerships will make all the difference in collective efforts to reduce coronavirus infection as we get closer to delivering a vaccine for young children. 

We have one chance to get this right. Let’s do everything we can to ensure that we protect our children so they cannot only survive but thrive. Their lives, and our future, depend on it.  

La June Montgomery Tabron is president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan. 

Tags COVID-19 vaccine Deployment of COVID-19 vaccines Medicine Vaccination Vaccine hesitancy

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