Bertha Lewis (47169)

On Jan. 13, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shifted its focus to urge states and localities to make COVID-19 vaccines available to all U.S. residents age 65 and older. The state’s change in policy substantially increased the number of eligible recipients here, from approximately 2 million to 7.1 million.

This week, the vaccination process opens to those with underlying conditions that present a greater risk for those who contract COVID-19. Included on this list are those suffering from Chronic Kidney Disease, with the majority of those receiving dialysis treatment every week.

Unfortunately, the long discrimination against this group—which includes a disproportionate number of the same people who have been most vulnerable to COVID-19, minorities, seniors and those with underlying conditions—has had a severe impact on their everyday lives. It is unclear whether anyone representing dialysis patients was on the Vaccine Distribution and Implementation Task Force that developed New York State’s COVID-19 vaccination program, which could have meant earlier inclusion in the vaccination program.

This lack of representation is an affront to the 500,000 individuals receiving dialysis in the United States, especially here in New York where more than 30,000 patients receive treatment statewide.

Almost 90% of all dialysis patients must undergo multi-hour treatments three times per week in a dialysis center. Many of them are treated at private centers that operate seven days per week. This requires individuals to leave their homes, often traveling on public transportation, and sit in an enclosed space for hours alongside other patients.

The majority of those receiving dialysis are minorities, seniors and those with underlying conditions. These are the same groups that have shown a higher risk already of contracting COVID-19.

Recent reports have found that dialysis patients face an increased risk of death, with a mortality rate of 25% for those who are diagnosed with COVID-19. The virus can have a devastating impact on these patients, as approximately 40%-50% of those who are hospitalized for COVID-19 develop acute kidney injury.

Yet we have a vaccination program that for months failed to assign any special priority to this burgeoning population.

We know that it’s going to be several more months before we have enough vaccination shots available for everyone. But there is plenty we can do in the meantime to ensure that every available shot is utilized as quickly as possible for those who need it the most.

While prioritizing these patients is a good first step, it is not nearly enough to actually help patients. To further ensure equitable distributions, they must put more mobile vaccination centers in low-income communities that have both walk-in hours and scheduled appointments available.

They should turn more existing healthcare facilities into vaccine distribution centers. This includes training staff at these locations to receive vaccine doses and distribute them to those living or visiting those locations—for example, vaccinating dialysis patients in the course of a visit to a facility. This will shorten lines and wait times for other citizens while ensuring the most vulnerable do not have to worry about finding a time and place to be vaccinated.

This is a time for creative thinking and new initiatives.

Simply doing what we’ve always done is not enough.

Bertha Lewis is a community organizer and the founder and president of The Black Institute.