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What the front lines of the vaccine rollout are really like, according to health leaders

April 27, 2021, 10:12 PM UTC

Hi readers,

Erika here taking over for Sy today. Our Fortune Brainstorm Health conference is underway! Watch this space and Fortune.com for coverage and clips from our jam-packed lineup and interviews with the CEOs of Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Zoom, Abbott, Anthem, and more.

I was able to sit in on the day’s first session, where we got insight into a question that I, and many others, have been curious about in recent weeks. Now that all American adults are eligible for the vaccine, what does the rollout look like, to those on the front lines?

It’s a little slow, said Jayne Pope, CEO of Hill Country Memorial, a small, non-profit hospital that serves the community around Fredericksburg, Texas. Her hospital volunteered to serve as a community vaccine hub and she and her staff put a lot of thought into how to most effectively communicate the science around COVID vaccines and educate partners within the community. As in many places, when prominent local leaders got the vaccine, it was publicized.

Even so, vaccine uptake has been slow. About 35% of the population Hill Country Memorial serves have been fully vaccinated, and only 60% of the hospital’s staff opted to get the vaccine. “We are having difficulty filling slots at this point,” said Pope, noting her organization has decided to stop giving first doses in May, and second doses in June. “We’re having a hard time giving people the vaccine because they’re not interested at this point.” She chalked that reluctance up to a combination of hesitancy, skepticism, and politics.

“People are waiting to see. We’ve heard they want to wait a couple years to see what the side effects are,” she added. All the messaging and community outreach, Pope said, “It’s just not resonating.”

What makes Hill Country’s experience all the more striking (and slightly worrisome) is that it’s a leading hospital, recognized, in part for how well it engages with its broader community. If they’re struggling, what’s happening across the larger universe of health providers?

I should note that Hill Country ranked eighth out of small hospitals featured on this year’s Top 100 Hospitals list, a joint production between Fortune and  IBM Watson Health. The 2021 list debuted today and is different than previous years—in one critical way. This year, with the help of experts at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, we’ve added to the criteria, and looked at what Hill Country is so good at—how hospitals have engaged with the goal of improving the well-being of the entire community outside their walls. Read more about why this is so important and which hospitals make the cut here

Close bonds between a health system and the community can’t alone solve vaccine hesitancy, but it can help. Here’s hoping for progress in the rollout at Hill Country, and beyond. Back to Sy tomorrow.

Erika Fry
erika.fry@fortune.com
@erikafry

DIGITAL HEALTH

Can genetic data tame 'Long COVID'? For some more taste of our ongoing Brainstorm Health (virtual) conference, just take a peek at this conversation with 23&Me CEO Anne Wojcicki. As my colleague Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez explains, "More than a million people, about 60,000 of which have contracted COVID-19, took a survey for 23andMe to conduct research related to COVID-19," Wojcicki said during a discussion at our conference today. That has specific implications for so-called "Long COVID," a phenomenon which may leave someone sick with the coronavirus-bred disease for months on end. Given that many of the current COVID vaccines rely on deconstructing genetics, gathering this kind of data could be critical for solving this particular medical mystery. Of course, there have always been privacy concerns surrounding consumer genomics firms. “We have had a very transparent and a very clear process with our customers, giving people the opportunity to get their information, to delete it when they want to, and then to opt into research,” Wojcicki said. (Fortune)

INDICATIONS

Moderna's ambitious shot at a one-shot. Another one from the Brainstorm Health roundup: Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel outlined the company's vision for creating mRNA-based vaccines that can tackle coronavirus, and variants, and the flu, all in one single product. "Our vision is to develop a high efficacy flu vaccine, and then merge it with COVID variables," he said during an interview at our virtual conference on Tuesday. "So in the same single shot, you get a high efficacy flu vaccine, the appropriate virus variant for that given year, and you walk into your your CVS or go to your [general practitioner], you get one dose and you're all set for flu and for COVID."(Fortune)

THE BIG PICTURE

The masking conversation evolves. Again. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on Tuesday issued new recommendations for masking in public. Namely: Common sense. Masks aren't necessary every minute of every time you're outside, especially if you're fully vaccinated (as in, you've received all of the requisite doses of whatever vaccine was given to you and waited two weeks to allow antibodies to build up). But if you're in a crowded area, or believe you can somehow breathe in or breathe out the coronavirus to people who may not be vaccinated, it's still a good idea to mask or socially distance. (NPR)

REQUIRED READING

Pfizer's COVID treatment pill could be available by year's endby Chris Morris

How the U.S. can quickly prevent half a million COVID deaths globallyby Rich Lesser & Marin Gjaja

The A.I. startup saving Walmartby Jeremy Kahn

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