COVID vaccine rollout

C. Virginia Fields | 1/14/2021, midnight
As we enter 2021, the pandemic forces us to face new, as well as continuing, realities.
C. Virginia Fields Contributed

As we enter 2021, the pandemic forces us to face new, as well as continuing, realities.

That is why we are taking lessons learned in confronting reluctance and misinformation in our most vulnerable communities––primarily Black and Brown communities marked by poverty and the lack of easily accessible health care, as well as filled with essential workers––to educate and encourage vaccination programs where they are needed most to overcome this deadly disease.

At the National Black Leadership Commission on Health, we have been working since last spring to send teams to meet vulnerable communities all across the city where they are––in public housing, social service agencies, food pantries, churches––with the message to mask up, socially distance and seek testing for the virus before it spreads more widely than it already has.

We saw the public, and not-so-public, impacts of the pandemic in increased mental health stresses, substance abuse and either a lack of concern or a dismissal of the seriousness of the threats because of mixed messaging coming from public officials wrestling with the onslaught. Some people were afraid to leave their homes to seek testing or treatment, while others refused to take the common-sense steps to minimize chances they would either contract the disease of pass it to others.

Now we see some of the same issues with the roll-out of the vaccine, including a lack of coordination between the state, city and front-line medical institutions, and wariness especially in precisely the communities of color where the prevalence of essential workers makes administering the vaccine all the more important.

We are applying the lessons we learned in the early days of the pandemic to this critical current phase, which, even as we must keep up the vigilance when it comes to mask wearing and social distancing, carries the promise at long last to see a chance to return to normal.

At Black Health, the organization I run, those lessons grew out of our awareness of the health disparities that have long divided this city. COVID has hit Black and Brown communities which historically have had fewer resources, situations of more dense and overcrowded housing and more likely to work in lower-paid essential jobs where staying home and working remotely was not an option.

And the conflicting information starting in the White House and filtering down to local government, especially around the levels of risk and the importance of wearing masks, fueled an erosion of trust in the early days of the pandemic. That is why we focused on reaching out to trusted community-based leaders to impress upon residents the importance of taking those steps.

Meeting people where they are is especially important for communities that have traditionally faced disparities that the pandemic has highlighted, including immigrant communities and those on the wrong side of the digital divide without easy access to social media.

We must use local radio and newspapers (all languages) and public access television, partner with civic groups to educate them, and adapt the model New York City used for the Census. Grassroots organizations are key to the success of the vaccine.

We must, however, drive home that the vaccine is a tool in the kit. We can’t oversell the vaccine as a stand-alone remedy, because if it isn’t available to everyone based on the timeline, it will only add to skeptics. This is no time to slack off on the essentials of hand-washing, social distancing and wearing a mask.

And above all, we must drive home that we are all in this together.

C. Virginia Fields, the former Manhattan Borough President, is the founder and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on Health.