Building Trust in Communities of Color Could Successfully Reduce Vaccination Disparities

COVID vaccination disparities BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of Madison.com

As of this week, 72% of the adult population in the United States has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. While the effort has helped control the rate of hospitalization and death from the virus, vaccination disparities remain a critical problem across the country.

As explained by the Kaiser Family Foundation, although 57% of unvaccinated adults are white, blacks and Hispanics remain less likely than their white peers to have received the vaccine, leaving them at greater risk, particularly as variants spread.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), achieving high vaccination rates in individuals and communities is a crucial goal to achieve broad protection through a vaccine, mitigate the disproportionate impacts of the virus for people of color, and prevent increased racial health disparities in the future.

CDC reports the demographic characteristics, including race/ethnicity, of persons receiving the COVID-19 vaccine nationally. As of August 16, 2021, CDC reported that the race/ethnicity of 58% of persons who had received at least one dose of the vaccine was known. Among this group, nearly two-thirds were white (58%), 10% were black, 17% were Hispanic, 6% were Asian, 1% were American Indian or Alaska Native, and <1% were Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, while 8% reported multiple-race or other.

To reduce this critical disparity, SCAN Health Plan, one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit Medicare Advantage plans, has deployed a program of unique collaborations, culturally relevant outreach, support for family caregivers, and an unwavering focus on building trust to successfully reduce these troubling vaccination disparities.

“The numbers indicate that through our efforts, we have been able to break with historic patterns and mitigate some of the pandemic’s devastating impact on underserved populations in order to achieve broad population immunity,” SCAN Health Plan explained in a statement.

The success of its campaign was due to five key actions:

  • Building trust through culturally and linguistically appropriate outreach.
  • Conducting surveys to gauge the opinions of its black and Spanish-speaking members about vaccines to create informed responses.
  • Launching a home immunization program for homebound members.
  • Launching a culturally informed phone line to help its members register for vaccines and answer questions appropriately.
  • Create a COVID-19 dashboard to track vaccine doses among its members.

“When you look at these initiatives and take them as a whole, it’s clear that SCAN was successful in reducing [vaccination disparities] because we built trust within our focused outreach,” said Dr. Romilla Batra, chief medical officer at SCAN Health Plan.

Similarly, CommuniVax, a COVID-19 vaccine equity coalition with teams in five states, has been working to improve vaccination campaigns in black and Latino populations. The strategy that has given them success is the same: building connections and trust.

“You have community-led groups playing a principal role now in community vaccine response,” said Monica Schoch-Spanas, medical anthropologist and CommuniVax’s co-chair, to USA Today. “Systems are getting better. They’re not perfect by any means, but they’re getting better and reaching more underserved populations better.”

Schoch-Spanas, who specializes in epidemics and public health emergency preparedness, said awareness of the highly contagious delta variant has also been a catalyst for vaccination, especially among those who took a “wait-and-see” approach.

“People will say, ‘OK, how risky is the vaccine versus how risky is the disease?’ And now, the balance is tipping,” she said. “You’ve got this middle ground of watchfulness. … We do know from other kinds of disasters that environmental cues signal to people that something needs to be done to protect themselves.”