How Equity Guides Neighborhood Health’s COVID Vaccine Strategy
April is National Minority Health Month, and this year the national focus is on the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on racial and ethnic minorities. At Neighborhood Health — located in northern Virginia and serving residents of Alexandria, Arlington County and Fairfax County — our goal from the outset has been vaccine equity. Our patients have been hit hard by the virus. They work in low-wage jobs, barely making ends meet in a region where the cost of living is high. They are primarily people of color, mostly Hispanic and African American. Many are immigrants and don’t speak English. More than half don’t have health insurance. Our center’s COVID test positivity rates have been twice as high as the regional average.
Community partnerships boost our health center’s vaccination efforts
Yet, today there are hopeful signs of progress. We have set up seven vaccination sites in areas accessible to underserved communities and are working in partnership with 100 organizations — including African American churches; organizations serving Latino and Asian communities; and agencies focused on food assistance, legal aid, affordable housing, tenants’ rights and social services; as well as the local health departments. Thanks to these robust community partnerships, Neighborhood Health has already administered over 20,000 vaccines; of those who reported their ethnicity and race, more than 85% have been people of color. Currently, approximately 5,000 individuals per week are being vaccinated.
Neighborhood Health was among the initial 250 centers across the nation tapped by HRSA to play a critical role in the vaccine equity strategy launched by the Biden Administration through the direct allocation of vaccines. President Biden recently toured one of our vaccine sites and spoke with staff and patients, as well as members of the faith community who have partnered with us to increase equity in the vaccine rollout. We are grateful to our dedicated staff, volunteers, and partners in the faith community, nonprofits, and local government who are working together in this race to beat COVID.
Strategies to make sure vulnerable patients have access to the vaccine
Our work is far from finished. We must continue to prioritize not only speed but also equity in our COVID strategy, and health centers are ideally suited for the job. Health centers have the systems in place to proactively reach out to their high-risk and vulnerable patients for preventive care including vaccinations. They can use their electronic health records to generate a list of eligible patients and then contact them individually through phone calls, text messages, or other avenues. Such individualized outreach also provides the opportunity to troubleshoot barriers such as lack of transportation or language access. This is a far more effective approach than relying on vulnerable populations to compete for appointments using centralized or online registration systems.
Health center staff have developed long-term relationships and trust with their patients and their communities. This trust is critical for increasing vaccine acceptance among marginalized populations. In our health center’s outreach, for example, many patients indicated that they were only willing to sign up for a vaccine appointment because our staff were the ones who had reached out to them. While there are a wide range of strategies necessary to overcome vaccine hesitancy, we should not overlook the importance of the relationships between patients and their long-term clinicians.
Basim Khan, MD is a primary care physician and the Executive Director of Neighborhood Health, a Federally Qualified Health Center in Northern Virginia