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HHS, HUD team up to extend COVID-19 vaccine access in vulnerable communities

The departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced plans on Wednesday to team up to extend access to COVID-19 vaccines and testing in vulnerable communities. 

HHS Secretary Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraObama joins Biden to tout record ObamaCare enrollment numbers Biden walks fine line with probe into coronavirus origins Senate Latino Democrats warn about low Hispanic vaccination rates MORE and HUD Secretary Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeOn The Money: Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal, warn of time crunch Progressives relish return to in-person events On The Money: Key takeaways from May jobs report | Biden rejects new GOP infrastructure offer as talks drag on MORE committed to having their departments work together to physically go into communities to assist in boosting vaccination numbers and alleviating any hesitancy surrounding getting the shot. 

The communities of focus include HUD-assisted households and people undergoing homelessness. The departments estimate the joint effort will extend to more than 6,000 multifamily housing properties, 6,700 homeless shelters and about 7,500 public housing properties across the U.S. 

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In a letter to colleagues, the secretaries said efforts by HHS-supported community health centers are "critically important to the people and households assisted by HUD, who have a higher prevalence of risk factors that may place them at increased risk of COVID-19 transmission, illness, and mortality."

The announcement comes as several states in the U.S. appeared to have reached a tipping point where supply of the COVID-19 vaccine is outpacing demand and the most enthusiastic vaccine recipients have already gotten their shots. 

But the secretaries said that showing up and putting resources into vaccine education, especially by trusted leaders in these communities, could help grow the number of inoculated Americans.  

“It’s not just a matter of getting the vaccine in an arm and trying to help improve people's health. It’s working to where the people are,” Becerra said at a press conference. “And sometimes we have to go to the public housing complexes. Sometimes we have to go to where we will find people more readily.”

The secretaries unveiled the initiative at Washington, D.C.’s Community of Hope, located in Ward 8, a predominantly Black district that has suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. 

Community of Hope CEO Kelly McShane said that Ward 8 had four times the coronavirus deaths of “the wealthier” Ward 3, which has a higher percentage of white residents. But Ward 8 currently has just half the number of vaccinations as Ward 3, McShane added.

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Fudge said several factors contribute to the difference, including a lack of transportation or internet service, saying, “Just because it is available doesn’t mean the people have access.” 

The HUD secretary called for differing approaches on outreach, saying for Black communities, she would typically go to churches, community centers and playgrounds. 

“We have to find a way to look to get to them in a different way,” Fudge said.

—Updated at 3 p.m.