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Why improved access and awareness are key to a more equitable vaccine rollout

March 4, 2021, 11:45 PM UTC

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that 10% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. And with a third vaccine, the newly approved Johnson & Johnson shot, on its way, that number will grow exponentially in the coming months.

But all news on the vaccine front is not good news. Throughout the past couple of months, there have been major inequities in terms of who is receiving inoculations. Recent studies show that the ZIP codes hit hardest by the pandemic have some of the lowest vaccination rates. And in February, analyses showed that Black and Hispanic people were vaccinated at far lower rates than their share of the country’s population, despite being two demographic groups hit especially hard by the virus. 

“We have three vaccines that have been cleared for emergency use by the FDA, and many more coming right behind that. The science has gone incredibly well,” said Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), during a Fortune Brainstorm Design virtual event Wednesday. “But the implementation [of the vaccines] has gone devastatingly and embarrassingly poorly.”

Dr. Bon Ku is a professor of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia who’s been working on the front lines of the pandemic for more than a year. In conversation with McMurry-Heath, Ku said he’s seen firsthand how the virus has impacted different communities.

“My observations have reflected the data,” Ku said. “Minorities are experiencing this pandemic in a worse way. In Philadelphia, Black Americans have been dying at two, sometimes three times the rate as white Americans.”

COVID-19 vaccine distribution has shined a light on health care inequities that have existed for generations in the U.S., according to McMurry-Heath. “We have to do everything we can to get the vaccine to communities that need them,” she said.

The disproportionate impact the virus has had on Black and brown communities is tied to “decades of structural racism,” Ku added. “People of color have been having worse health outcomes before the pandemic, and the pandemic has only exacerbated those inequalities,” he said.

To fight this inequity, Ku and McMurry-Heath agree a key solution is making sure the communities in need have easy access to vaccination centers. 

“I think we need to reduce barriers. We need to make it super easy for people to get the vaccine,” Ku said. “They need to be able to just walk down the block and get it, just like with voting. In the same way voting registration sites popped up all through our communities during the election, we need to do that with the vaccine.” 

Vaccine hesitancy is another issue at play. But providing better access to the vaccine and more focused messaging campaigns reinforcing the safety of the vaccine will be key to a more equal rollout, according to Sarah Brooks, distinguished designer at IBM.

“There’s a difference between hesitancy and refusal,” Brooks said. “I’ve seen stats that minority populations who have distrust in the vaccine may be 50% less likely to want to get it, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t. [We need] people who are trusted leaders in those communities to speak in messages that people resonate with.”

Furthermore, the introduction of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could help make vaccine distribution more equitable. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine requires just one shot, and it can be stored in standard refrigerators instead of freezers, differentiating it from the existing vaccines and making it easier to distribute.

Still, it’s going to take a large-scale concerted effort to make sure those in need receive the shot, according to Ku. 

“I think every individual, every company, every organization can play a role,” Ku said. “This is a grassroots effort that every one of us should be involved with. I can’t emphasize that enough.”