COVID-19 And Beyond: Addressing Vaccine Equity

posted by AHIP

on December 14, 2020

In recent weeks, drug companies have shared promising results in the rapid efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Experts anticipate a vaccine will be approved by the end of 2020.  But approval alone won’t bring a quick end to the COVID-19 crisis and its many effects on the daily lives of all Americans. Everyone needs to continue to follow public health recommendations – wear a mask, watch your distance, and wash your hands.

It will also be important to consistently raise awareness among the public – particularly with communities of color and vulnerable populations – about the safety and effectiveness of COVID vaccines after the FDA and CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) take action.

Depending on the specific evidence from the clinical trials, FDA approvals, and ACIP recommendations, it is very likely that health care personnel, non-health care essential workers, people living in long-term care facilities, and people with serious chronic conditions that put them at high-risk of serious illness from COVID will be among the first to be eligible for the vaccine before it is more widely available in the spring or summer of 2021.

The challenges of health inequities during the pandemic

We know that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on minority communities. As we look forward to a vaccine being authorized and becoming available, it is important to consider longstanding disparities in access to care that will create familiar challenges to equitable distribution.

“The way the COVID-19 pandemic has played out in minority communities did not come out of the blue,” said Dr. Garth Graham, VP of Community Health at CVS Health, during the AHIP Institute and Expo Online 2020. “What drives differences in life expectancy is housing, education, and socioeconomic status overall. And that plays a direct role in what we’re seeing in the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

An analysis from NPR showed that racial and ethnic minority populations in the United States are becoming infected and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than White populations.

Health insurance providers have already addressed challenges in expanding COVID-19 testing in vulnerable communities by meeting people where they are.

“One of the things we announced was an expansion of testing using our retail stores,” said Dr. Graham. “The majority of those testing sites are in places that have a high social vulnerability index. We also partnered with organizations like free clinics and other places that have locations in low income communities.”

Flu vaccination rates may provide insight

Annual flu vaccination rates may help to predict the potential demand for a COVID-19 vaccine, as well as shed light on how race and social factors can impact vaccine uptake. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that “data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the flu vaccination rate generally has been increasing over time… with lower rates of vaccination among Black and Hispanic individuals compared to White individuals.”

The CDC seeks to proactively address some of the myths and concerns people may have about vaccine safety and effectiveness. The Vaccinate with Confidence program from the CDC aims to share clear and accurate information about vaccines – including the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available – to address concerns people may have when and to help overcome known barriers to care for vulnerable individuals.

Health insurance providers cover vaccines recommended by ACIP under most plans and provide information and education to members on what vaccinations they need and how to get them. Plans also work with provider networks, community organizations, and other partners such as public health officials. When ACIP recommends a COVID-19 vaccine following FDA action, it it is expected to be covered for free for all Americans.