COVID-19 Vaccines, A ‘Light At The End Of The Tunnel’: White House Vaccinations Coordinator

posted by Alicia Caramenico

on February 10, 2021

On The Next Big Thing in Health podcast, Dr. Bechara Choucair, White House Vaccine Coordinator and former Chief Health Officer for Kaiser Permanente, sat down with hosts Matt Eyles, AHIP president and CEO, and Laura Evans to discuss the U.S. vaccination effort and Kaiser Permanente’s work to address the social health of their members and the communities they serve.

Listen to the full interview on AppleSpotifySoundcloud, and Stitcher.

Matt Eyles: The pandemic has created tremendous economic stress. When you think about the downstream consequences, we know that a record number of Americans are facing food insecurity, in addition to being anxious about health care. And a lot of families are turning to food banks for the first time. Can you talk about the connection between diet and food security, and the impact that COVID-19 has had on all of this?

Dr. Choucair: Absolutely, well I think we all agree that no one in America should go to bed hungry. And the ability to access and afford enough nutritious food to support a healthy life is so critical to health.

And yet we knew even before the pandemic that food insecurity is a major, major crisis in this country. Before the pandemic, one in nine households were dealing with food insecurity. That’s 37 million people in this country. Today, that number is closer to one in six households. And the numbers are even more striking in kids—1 in 5 children in this country are dealing with food insecurity.

So, as a health system that’s taking care of millions of members, we realize that we can play a role in connecting people with the systems that are supporting members in our communities, particularly around food access. Even before the pandemic, we realized that many of our members qualified for food stamps or the supplemental nutrition program, and yet never tapped into it. So, before the pandemic, we initiated an intervention that helped identify members who we thought would qualify for food stamps but hadn’t applied for them, and we’ve designed an effort to support that through text messaging, phone call centers—all the way to helping them submit their application to those programs across our communities.

Over the last few months, that effort has accelerated across our footprint. I’m really happy to report that 67,000 of our members have completed their application to get access to food stamps just from this effort alone. And these types of interventions are so critical.

We also launched a call center after the pandemic hit to support our members with their social needs. And if any of our members across any part of our footprint have issues with food instability, housing instability, transportation issues, financial strain—they can pick up the phone and call one of our call centers to support them with resources to help them deal with that.

Laura Evans: It’s looking like many Americans will have access to a vaccine at some point in 2021. However, there is still a lot of hesitancy among many communities of color to get that vaccine. So, what should we be doing right now to build trust in those communities and to ensure that everyone has access to the vaccine?

Dr. Choucair: Well, let me start by acknowledging what you said. The approval of the Pfizer vaccine and Moderna vaccine is a huge turning point in the way we’re fighting this pandemic. I can, for the first time, see a light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, that tunnel is very, very long and it’s going to be a tough few months ahead … but it’s really promising to see the progress on making sure that those vaccines are available, are safe, are distributed across the country—and most importantly that there’s an equity in the way we’re distributing and making sure that those vaccines are available to our communities.

I think the engagement from the FDA, the CDC, the guidance that’s coming out—every state that I’m engaged in … everybody is rolling up their sleeves and wants to go all the way in to make sure we’re making the vaccines available and addressing those issues you brought up around hesitancy and others.

A couple of things I’d want to add. One, we know that this pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color across the country. We know that people of color are getting diagnosed more often, getting hospitalized more often, dying more often than the rest of the country and so it becomes even more important that we make the vaccines available to those communities.

It’s also important to protect our health care workers, and I’m really happy to see the big focus on health care workers as part of the first phase for those who qualify for the vaccine. And it’s also important to protect our nursing homes—40% of deaths as a result of the pandemic are residents of these nursing facilities and others.

So, I think we have a long road ahead on the vaccinations. This is not just about the vaccines. This is about a vaccination effort, an immunization effort that needs to cover the whole country. And I’m really excited about the road ahead and I am fully aware of how many challenges we’re going to have to deal with along the way.

Laura Evans: Building that trust, is it about communication and putting out messaging?

Dr. Choucair: Communication is going to be extremely important. Thinking about what our immunization campaign needs to look like, how we leverage influencers across our communities is going to be extremely important. How do we lift up the voices of the doctors, the nurses, the community members who are trusted in their communities. We need to consider our messaging on social media, on TV, on airwaves—all of that becomes extremely important to continue to build the trust and build on the momentum of getting more and more people vaccinated.

Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.