More and more Americans are coming around to getting vaccinated, but we're running into availability problems with being able to access vaccine providers and having the time to do it, especially in underserved Black and brown communities, which has still been a majorly underrepresented problem.
Yolanda Orosco-Arellano decided she would get the coronavirus vaccine long before it became available. But securing an appointment for it was less straightforward.
The hotel housekeeper and mother of four worried about her anemia, a risk factor for severe illness from the virus. But Orosco-Arellano doesn’t have a car and needed a vaccination slot scheduled around her shifts at the hotel.
Barriers to getting the shot and information about the vaccines have hindered the “unvaccinated but willing,” who account for approximately 10 percent of the American population, according to a report last month by the Department of Health and Human Services. Unlike those who have declined vaccines, some vocally, because of their politics or ideology, a quieter share — about 44% of unvaccinated people — say they would get vaccinated but are on the fence for certain reasons. Some, like Orosco-Arellano, lack transportation or other means, while others wish to wait and see or don’t know coronavirus vaccines are free.
Immunizing that population could be critical to attaining herd immunity and protecting those disproportionately affected by the pandemic. But public health officials have, so far, struggled to reach young adults, Blacks, Hispanics and uninsured people, groups who are unvaccinated but willing at higher rates.
To fill the gap, a motley contingent of volunteers has stepped in — from nurses ferrying patients in their own cars to retired health care workers manning phone lines to community members passing out educational fliers. Nearly 100 free and charitable clinics across the country, which offer services to uninsured or underinsured people, have forged bridges with underserved communities in an initiative dubbed “Project Finish Line,” aiming to vaccinate 1 million hard-to-reach people like Orosco-Arellano.
Her clinic, HealthNet in Rock County, Wis., is one of the ones adapting to reach the unvaccinated but willing and has offered rides to patients and expanded their hours around work schedules. Orosco-Arellano got her shot in May at the clinic.
“I felt comfortable here,” she said in Spanish, sitting in the clinic beside the caseworker, Alicia Alvarado, who drove her to the appointment and translated for her.
The initiative by clinics has immunized more than 112,000 people since June said Joe Agoada, the CEO of Sostento, a nonprofit that supports front line health workers in underserved communities and launched the project. HHS noted in the report last month that the percentage of people who were unable but willing to get vaccinated has declined, indicating the outreach has had some success.
But the effort has hinged on safety-net clinics like HealthNet that have become a bedrock in their communities but do not receive federal funding, Agoada said. The clinics’ patients include those experiencing homelessness or those who are unable to get health insurance. Before the pandemic hit, the clinics offered vital health care to 2 million people who needed it.
“They’re overburdened by the number of patients, and their patients themselves are burdened,” Agoada said.
Sostento has raised $500,000 for the vaccination initiative, half of what the nonprofit says is needed.
“Free and charitable clinics are vaccinating populations nobody else can, despite a lack of resources,” Agoada said. “To defeat this pandemic, we cannot afford to overlook and underinvest in this group, and yet so far this is exactly what has happened.”
The clinics depend on grants and donations and, during the pandemic, thousands of volunteer hours, many at the front lines of the vaccination effort.
At HealthNet in Wisconsin, in addition to clinic staff driving patients to their appointments, some have spent their lunches or off-hours vaccinating people who can’t visit while the clinic is open. Even the clinic’s CEO, Ian Hedges, has passed out his cell number, responding to texts on weekends to sign people up for appointments.
“That was VIP red carpet service,” he said. “I would have never done that for anyone else except for individuals who felt that no one else was listening or talking to them.”
The disinformation effort by Republicans over the COVID vaccine is choking off outreach efforts and distribution efforts as well. There are people who still want the vaccine, but can't take the time off work, can't get a weekend appointment where they are, can't afford to have illness as a side effect and miss hours, have to do other things like raise a family.
Republicans are making people, Black and brown folk especially, jump through hoops. That has been the case for months now, and the disinformation flood is only making things worse.
There are a hell of a lot of vaccine deniers. But there are also a hell of a lot of people who can't afford the cost in time and travel to get the vaccine, and Republicans are making sure those people are suffering on purpose.
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