How cities can fill the gaps in Covid-19 vaccine communication

Making sure everyone gets a shot.
Making sure everyone gets a shot.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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If she had to assign a grade to the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in Chicago, Loren Simmons would give it a tepid C+.

As the chief empowerment officer at the local Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Simmons sees the needs of her community up close. She knows, for example, that in the north side of Chicago, there are pharmacies practically catty-corner to each other—which is great for those who live there. But in her own community on the south side, the civil unrest during the summer of 2020 led to the destruction of one of the few Walgreens in her community, leaving just the drive-through pharmacy open. Another Walgreens and a CVS in the same neighborhood have shut down due to economic hardship. “I live in a pharmacy desert,” she says. “So if you don’t have those outlets for a vaccine, how do you access that opportunity?”

At the moment, Chicago is only in the initial stages of vaccine deployment, providing jabs to people in nursing homes or other healthcare settings. But still, says Simmons, “I haven’t noticed the south or west side being included in [rollout] decisions.” It doesn’t bode well for distribution of the vaccines to the general public.

Already, less affluent communities across the country—which are disproportionately made up of minorities—have suffered more at the hands of the Covid-19 pandemic. When these same communities don’t see their interests and needs reflected in state and federal vaccine distribution plans, it increases the distrust fostered by hardships baked into society. So far, the federal government hasn’t effectively reached these communities with its communication efforts. Instead, community leaders are picking up the slack.

Simmons and her colleague Dorri McWhorter, the chief executive officer of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, have started brainstorming ways to fill the vaccination gaps for their members. Access aside, their first order of business is tackling education—making sure that the community has enough information they can trust, so that when vaccines are available, people will want to get them. “We’ve been talking about how we get and better information out there,” says McWhorter.

The US government has historically mistreated the Black community when it comes to healthcare. Most infamously, it funded the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis, in which imprisoned Black men who had syphilis were lied to and purposely left untreated so doctors could see the full extent of the infection. That study, Simmons notes, ended in the 1970s, a time many members of the YWCA still remember vividly. Combined with other questions about the vaccine’s safety—which are common across racial groups—the fear is that many Black community members won’t want the vaccine at all.

One way to increase trust is to bring in Black healthcare providers. So, in their spare time, without extra funding, Simmons and McWhorter have been trying to organize information panels as well as more casual rollouts of information at events like meal distributions. They’re focused on bringing in Black doctors, many of whom are also volunteering their time to do as much outreach as possible. One upcoming event coordinated by the duo will include Ian Moore, a Black immunologist at the National Institutes of Health studying translational medicine, and one of McWhorter’s childhood friends, an immunologist now practicing in Texas. “It helps to have Black people talk to other Black people about these treatments,” McWhorter says. “We didn’t want people that are supportive, we want people who are actually involved.”

Leaders in Chicago’s Latino community are employing a similar strategy. Juanita Mora, an immunologist practicing in Chicago and volunteer medical spokesperson with the American Lung Association, has been speaking herself on Univisión, a Spanish-speaking news network, to try to answer commonly held questions for viewers. Marina Del Rios, an emergency room physician and chair of the health and policy committee of the Illinois Latino COVID-19 Initiative. She was the first person in Chicago to get her Covid-19 vaccine, and has been using all of her spare time to do outreach as well. “I’ve spent a lot of my non-work hours strategizing and trying to address [information] disparities,” she says.

A major concern more common in Latino communities is that the vaccination process will lead to questions about immigration status. The possibility of these questions alone may be enough to dissuade some frontline workers, who may be undocumented immigrants, from accepting the vaccine. Although this shouldn’t happen—vaccination sites may require some form of identification or employment verification, but not citizenship status—Mora and others have been working to communicate that to members of the Latino community. By leaning on established sites of trust, like her local church, she hopes to convince individuals that getting the vaccine is safe for them and their families.

For some minorities, it’s hard to trust the vaccine rollout because informational resources don’t exist in their first language. Joon Bang, the president of the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, has been trying to find ways to communicate with his members about how they can access Covid-19 vaccines, as well as answering questions about their safety.

He and his team had to perform a similar function back in the early onset of the pandemic, when information about Covid-19 wasn’t widely available in languages other than English and Spanish. Instead, his group had to find ways to translate information into six languages themselves—but the process hasn’t been as straightforward with vaccines. “There’s chaos,” he says. “We don’t even know how the guidelines are changing,” which is a problem as he’s trying to triangulate in-language information into a single source for his members and their caregivers.

Bang and others are hopeful that these community-driven efforts will eventually pay off. The new Biden administration has promised to create an Infectious Disease Racial Disparities Task Force, led by vice president Kamala Harris. Hopefully, federal leaders will be able to listen to concerns from the community members who have been picking up the slack for so long.