Expert: Communities of Color Want to Be Vaccinated, the Problem is Vaccine Supply

It has taken both time and effort to address the equitable allocation of COVID-19 vaccinations, and in communities such as Prince George’s County in Maryland, significant effort has been made to address barriers to access.

Although it has taken both time and effort to address the equitable allocation of COVID-19 vaccinations in communities across the country, in communities such as Prince George’s County in Maryland, significant effort has been made to address barriers to vaccination access, according to a webinar hosted by the National Association of County and City Health Officials and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS).

“The vaccines came out so fast that we were really building the infrastructure as vaccines were coming in, but we now have a call line, so for folks who cannot register online or who don’t have an email address, those are no longer barriers,” said Alison Mendoza-Walters, MPH, MBA, health planner, Prince George’s County Department of Health, during the webinar.

Mendoza-Walters further explained that the Prince George’s County Health Department has been doing on-site vaccinations and has partnered with a pharmacy that is managing a mobile vaccination clinic for further support of those who may have difficulty in reaching vaccination clinics for reasons such as lack of transport.

“There is also a mobile registration team that does on-site registrations in communities for folks who don’t have the equipment or time to hit refresh 10,000 times for the online portal,” Mendoza-Walters said. “Of course, we’re always still innovating and always working on how to best reach folks.”

In order to breach issues regarding vaccine hesitancy in communities, Mendoza-Walters noted that information sharing is critical. She explained that she has found information sharing to be an important tool to spread the word in Prince George’s County regarding the safety and efficacy of available COVID-19 vaccines.

“We’re just trying to flood the county with good, credible information through every partner, through every means that we can,” Mendoza-Walters said during the webinar.

Additionally, with the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program providing federally qualified health centers with access to COVID-19 vaccines, there will be more opportunities for COVID-19 vaccinations to reach community members out in the field. However, the issue of supply remains even with this broader access, according to Michelle Cantu, the director of infectious disease and immunization at the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

“But one of those consistent challenges is the actual supply. The demand is high, but the supply currently is still being stretched,” Cantu said during the webinar.

Mendoza-Walters explained that the coverage of the presence of vaccine hesitancy in communities of color may be skewing the actual data to indicate the problem is interest among these communities in getting vaccinated, rather than the problem being supply of the actual vaccine, which has been a limitation to vaccination access in these communities.

“There’s a lot of press over vaccine hesitancy—Black Americans and people of color not wanting to get the vaccine. I just want to go on the record to say our demand in this county—we’re predominantly a people of color county—is overwhelming,” Mendoza-Walters said.

She explained further that she has heard from community partners who have grown tired of the notion that their community is hesitant to get vaccinated and doesn’t trust the vaccine, due to the thousands of patients of color who are on their vaccination waiting list.

“I just want to bring up that message from our coalition that we want to change the narrative. We want this vaccine, people in this county want this vaccine,” Mendoza-Walters said. “Of course, there are some people that are hesitant, but what we are seeing by and large is that people want this vaccine. I think that’s a positive message that needs to be emphasized and needs to be heard because in the mainstream news, it’s the opposite message. We want to uplift positive messages within our communities.”

Christie R. Boutte, PharmD, RPh, senior vice president of reimbursement, innovation and advocacy at NACDS, agreed that the need for positive messaging is critical. However, she noted that the true source of the problem in relation to vaccine access would become clearer once supply was able to meet demand in the country.

“The narrative does need to be changed. But as we have all said throughout this time and continue to say, the real problem is supply. Once the supply is available and it’s there to meet the demand, I think the narrative will change on its own,” Boutte said during the webinar.

Boutte noted that with the help of community pharmacies, 100 million doses of vaccine could be administered in 30 days if given the supply to do so.

“This is not just a situation where we are requiring patients to come to us. Our members are committed to serving those in underserved areas and rural areas. We can do pop-up clinics, we can get vaccines to patients who have transportation issues, we can go to school parking lots. We can do things to make sure that we can get vaccines to patients who cannot necessarily come to a store,” Boutte said during the webinar.

Other innovative solutions with Uber and Lyft have also been established to ensure vaccine access in communities that may face transportation limitations, Boutte explained. Due to these initiatives and the vaccination capacity of pharmacies and their staff, as soon as supply becomes available, it will be possible to bridge the gap on what currently appears to be vaccine hesitancy, according to the panel.

“Our members have reported to us that for every 1 appointment, they’re getting 1000 hits. So, when you have those types of numbers, it shows that people are there,” Boutte said during the webinar. “For some of them, while it appears to be vaccine hesitancy, it’s also a little bit of ‘refresh’ fatigue, in that they’re fatigued from hitting the refresh button, because there are so many people demanding those appointments. So, as soon as the supply becomes available, that narrative will change on its own.”

Updated on March 2, 2021

REFERENCE

Mendoza-Walters A, Banks‐Wiggins B, Boutte CR, Guo A. COVID-19 Vaccination Stories from the Field: Local Health Department & Pharmacy Partnerships. Presented at: National Association of County and City Health Officials and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores webinar; February 25, 2021; virtual.