As COVID-19 vaccines continue to roll out across the country with increasing speed, there is reason to hope we may soon be rounding a corner on the pandemic. But challenges persist: infections are still rising in a number of states, and racial disparities continue to hamper vaccination efforts in the hardest-hit communities. While progress has been made in reaching vulnerable communities in Chicago, data as of mid-April shows that an estimated 19% percent of residents who received a first dose of the vaccine were Black and 23% were Latinx, while 40% were white.
As we continue to grapple with a once-in-generation pandemic and consider what life after COVID-19 looks like, we must tailor our response to the two truths that will affect our ability to truly recover and weather the next shock.
First, we must strengthen our national public health infrastructure. Initial challenges around vaccine supply and distribution were due in no small part to chronic disinvestment and fragmentation in our public health infrastructure. Without a major investment in our ability to prevent disease, promote health, and prepare for and respond to acute and chronic health threats, we will not be prepared when the next health crisis strikes.
Second, we must continue to put equity at the core of our response to public health challenges. It is not only the right thing to do—it is the smart thing to do. Black and Latinx communities in Chicago have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19— Latinx residents have contracted COVID-19 at double the rate of white residents, and Black Chicagoans have died at double the rate of white residents. These communities have also borne the brunt economically. More small businesses went under in 2020 than in the entire great recession, and most were Black-, Latinx-, immigrant-or female-headed. The best way to control the pandemic and to set us all on a path to better health and an inclusive economic recovery is to get the vaccines to where they are most needed. By continuing to target our efforts to distribute the vaccine in the communities that have experienced the greatest harm, we will have the most impact on controlling and containing the coronavirus.
The Trust is partnering with funders like the Rockefeller Foundation to support the Vaccine Corps Partnership (VCP). Incubated at the Michael Reese Health Trust, VCP is a collaboration of Chicago-area organizations working to ensure all residents can access the COVID-19 vaccine while strengthening a public health workforce to pursue health equity beyond the pandemic.
Recently, the Trust hosted a panel of public health and community leaders featuring Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner, Chicago Department of Public Health; Max Clermont, senior project lead, Vaccine Corps Partnership, Partners in Health; Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director, Illinois Department of Public Health; and Xavier Nogueras, co-founder, Illinois Unidos.
The panel discussed VCP’s efforts to engage community members in building vaccine communication campaigns, noting that we need trusted messengers like faith leaders, local community leaders, beauticians and barbers to educate and empower hard-to-reach and skeptical populations.
“One size absolutely does not fit all. The message that you might have in one area of the state or one community is absolutely not the same message that’s going to resonate with people maybe just a couple of dozen miles over,” Ezike said. “Identifying the appropriate message with the appropriate messenger…and being responsive to the community’s needs, that’s one of the most important lessons we’ve learned.”
VCP also seeks to create a model for the community-led development of a sustainable public health workforce for the future.
“Public health is now everybody’s business. Wherever you are, whoever you are, this impacts you,” Clermont said. “I think [the pandemic] has opened people’s minds about the role that they play in the public health response, not just for today, but for long-term resilience.”
In order for these efforts to succeed, we must recognize the historical reasons that communities of color, and Black Americans in particular, mistrust medical experimentation and health systems that have caused harm. Language and technology barriers to accessing vaccines also exist in these communities. The organization Illinois Unidos has received a grant from the VCP to address this issue with a culturally competent telephone hotline to support Latinx residents with salient information and resources. The Vaccine Corps partnership is also joining its efforts with others across the Chicago metropolitan area. Over the last several months, the city’s Protect Chicago Plus plan has targeted 15 high-need communities based on the City’s COVID vulnerability index to ensure that vaccines reach the individuals and communities most impacted.
The way to achieve health equity and long-lasting change is for everyone to recognize that they have a role in public health. As a community foundation that has made closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap our highest priority, we know we cannot achieve our vision for the region if we do not equitably and intentionally ensure we can all recover from the health and economic impacts of COVID. While this approach is the right approach because it centers on equity, it also happens to be the necessary approach to end this crisis and build a healthier and more resilient future for our families, communities, and beyond.