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How BIPOC-Led Outreach Campaigns Are Closing The COVID Vaccine Gap

“I'm really proud of the fact that we've been able to build that trust.”

by Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro
A nurse moves to administer the COVID vaccine on a woman. Community outreach programs working on exp...
Lorado/Getty Images

That the vaccine rollout is well underway has many people celebrating, but statistics about who’s getting the COVID vaccine paint a more sobering picture. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) shows that people of color are not receiving the vaccine at the rate of white people. In Delaware, nearly a quarter of all COVID patients were Black, but only 9% of those who’ve been vaccinated are Black. In Arizona, only 13% of the Latinx population has received the vaccine, despite representing 36% of COVID-19 cases. And over half of states still aren’t reporting vaccine distribution data concerning race or ethnicity at all.

There are many reasons for these disparities. Early in the rollout, public health experts were concerned about BIPOC communities’ confidence in the vaccine, given the United States’ history of racism in medicine. But outreach groups say that actually, it’s an access issue: for people of color who want to get vaccinated, systemic inequality in health care means it’s harder to get vaccine appointments or to take time off work to get the shot.

Amber A. Hewitt, Ph.D., the director of health equity at Families USA, a nonpartisan consumer health care advocacy organization, tells Bustle that the vaccine rollouts “amplify what we’ve already known about disparities and inequities” in health care — things like high rates of maternal mortality among Black women and anti-immigrant policies that force some Latinx communities to completely forego medical care, which existed long before COVID hit.

In order to close the vaccine gap, organizations and coalitions run by BIPOC health equity advocates are stepping in to reach the communities hit hardest by the virus. Organizations like Families USA and One Community Campaign help identify barriers keeping BIPOC from getting their shots, register folks for appointments, and host events where community members can learn more about the vaccine.

How Outreach Groups Tackle Vaccine Misinformation

Some outreach efforts aim to address myths and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. Bliss Requa-Trautz, the executive director of the Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center and an organizer in the One Community Campaign, says a lack of access to reliable and culturally-informed health care helps propagate myths.

“A significant percentage of Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center’s membership base, because they're undocumented, don't have health insurance or primary health care providers. They can’t ask common questions like, ‘I just had COVID, so how long do I have to wait before I can get the vaccine?’” Requa-Trautz explains. Some people in her community believe that the vaccine is more dangerous to people with underlying health conditions than COVID-19 would be, which research says it’s not; others have approached the One Community Campaign because they felt the vaccine was authorized too quickly, though mRNA technology has been in development for over a decade. Bringing doctors and public health experts into membership meetings has offered an opportunity to dispel these false notions firsthand, Requa-Trautz says, adding that a recent vaccine myths-vs.-facts Zoom panel had around 100 attendees.

According to Hewitt, the Trump administration’s lack of transparency about the COVID-19 vaccine development contributed to vaccine distrust that public health advocates now see. Some of her community partners say people questioned whether “folks that represent their identities were reflected in the sample of clinical trials.” Recent data shows that BIPOC communities were underrepresented in late-stage COVID-19 vaccine trials, though per KFF the studies were more diverse than they have been historically.

The Big Myth About Vaccine Confidence

All demographic groups have some degree of low vaccine confidence: A February KFF survey found that 1 in 5 adults overall will get the vaccine “only if required for work, school, or other activities,” or else would skip it entirely. But that’s not the picture being painted. “There is an assumption that people of color are the only communities that hold low vaccine confidence,” Hewitt says. Regardless of different groups’ confidence levels, Hewitt adds it’s “not a good excuse” to avoid making sure rollouts are equitable.

The false idea that BIPOC communities uniquely experience low vaccine confidence stems from the history of medical racism against people of color in the U.S., says Hewitt. But while the historical mistreatment of BIPOC communities in health care is well documented, medical racism is far from being an issue of the past. Hewitt points to the fact that the Tuskegee experiment — a study that examined the effects of untreated syphilis in Black men, where treatment was not made available to the study subjects — ran until 1972, “during a time that my parents were close to my age.” She adds, “Systemic racism in health care persists today, and historic distrust is based on valid experiences, not figments of people’s imaginations.”

Community Is Everything

Tackling this wariness requires not only working alongside the community, but treating community members as experts. “We can't just go in as public health advocates and say, ‘I'm here to fix it,’” says Erika Marquez, Ph.D., MPH, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada and an organizer of the One Community Campaign. Rather, listening to a community’s unique insight into local issues can help find the best possible solutions. With the help of community partners, the coalition has developed bilingual mailers and made sure vaccine information is included in community public service announcements, Marquez says.

Diversifying the ways they reach people helps to bring in as broad a swath of the community as possible. “When it comes to access, you want to make sure that you're using language that is culturally appropriate,” Hewitt says. “If you're in a community that's mostly Spanish speaking, your public health materials should be in Spanish.” Her organization works with over 50 partners nationwide to find alternatives to drive-thru vaccination sites, for example, because they aren’t accessible for people who lack transportation. Another successful strategy has been making a Connecticut location a “one-stop” shop — community members can get COVID-19 testing, vaccine distribution, food banks, or other social services under one roof.

Requa-Trautz points to one member who lost her job as a domestic worker and began volunteering with food distribution. “She said that coming together and working to support others has been a therapy for her at a time where she was struggling with losing her job.”

For Hewitt, seeing trusted community health workers getting vaccinated helps to normalize the process for other community members. “It’s been inspiring for me to see my friends — particularly my Black psychologist and physician friends — with their sleeves rolled up, getting the vaccine themselves,” she says.

Marquez recently learned that one of the community partners she worked with was giving materials to their 13-year-old daughter to help explain the vaccine rollout. “That, to me, validated the long work hours and the campaign’s efforts. I'm really proud of the fact that we've been able to build that trust.”

The guiding principle behind these outreach practices boils down to a quote Marquez learned recently, which developed out of disability advocacy: “Nothing about us, without us,” she shares. “If we want to address health disparities related to COVID-19 in these communities, we need them at the table.”