The news of a successful coronavirus vaccine was the hope we needed during a horrendous year that saw over 350,000 Americans needlessly die. While the vaccine promised relief, the reality’s been a nightmare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only 13 million vaccine doses have been distributed, woefully short of its 20 million goal. As vaccine doses expire, health officials around the country rely on Eventbrite and Sign-up Genius for vaccine reservations. Florida seniors camping out overnight while luxury high-rise dwellers jump the line has made herd immunity seem like a fading dream.
There has been mixed messaging, plus little guidance and direction, from the Trump administration. While the recent stimulus allocates $8.75 billion for state vaccine distribution, that funding is months late. With the Biden administration still waiting to take office, Philadelphia and our leaders must lead the region’s efforts to vaccinate all Philadelphians.
Philadelphia received vaccine doses on Dec. 16 but administered only half of what it received, over 24,000 doses. To ramp up, Philadelphia’s Public Health Department posted its Community Vaccination Program Request for Proposals (RFP). With winter and a more contagious viral strain, time’s running out and deaths can be prevented with urgency.
As a former state government official responsible for emergency management and a community activist with over a decade of local and statewide advocacy experience, we identify four opportunities for city and health-care leadership to develop a more inclusive and equitable vaccine strategy.
Second, create a dashboard that is transparent and up-to-date and reflects marginalized communities. Although Philadelphia’s Coronavirus Interim Racial Equity Plan pledged to collect and publicize data by race and ethnicity, the city’s vaccine data currently omits this information, providing sparse accounts and little context.
The city’s data must disaggregate racial and ethnic minorities; people with disabilities, including those receiving home and community-based services and their caregivers; people living and working in congregate settings, not only seniors living in long-term care facilities; tribal community members; incarcerated persons; and people experiencing homelessness. Without this data, community providers cannot “create a program that works to reduce health inequities for racial, ethnic, and disenfranchised minorities,” as stated in the city’s RFP.
Third, make public health more democratic by reviving Philadelphia and the region’s census working groups. Hiring recent census workers doesn’t just create jobs — their knowledge will save community vaccination partners time and money. The city should spearhead a full-blown campaign: enlist civic, neighborhood, and faith-based communities to help identify high-risk populations; conduct neighborhood focus groups, including at citywide food distribution sites; and host phonebanks and textbanks to help residents make vaccination plans. These deeper conversations will help leaders better understand challenges, including discrimination, that affect vaccine access and implement real-time solutions.
Finally, foster inclusive and transparent communication to help alleviate mistrust. Almost two in 10 Americans are “pretty certain” they won’t take the vaccine, per a December poll from Pew. Some health-care and frontline workers are reportedly refusing the vaccine. And Black and brown communities are understandably skeptical given our nation’s history of medical racism.
The city’s public health campaign must invest in local papers, radio, ethnic media, rapid response teams on social media, and ADA-accessible apps with in-language and culturally appropriate support to fight disinformation and misinformation. To popularize the vaccine, Philadelphia should also partner with trusted messengers, including our beloved sports teams. There should at least be more public engagement through virtual town halls with leaders to address concerns and expand existing regional communities of practice.
By creating a more inclusive, accessible public health strategy that centers historically excluded communities, we’re hopeful that Philadelphia will beat the virus — and the city will eventually have to grease the poles again.
Anna Perng is the cofounder of the Chinatown Disability Advocacy Project, an advocacy coalition that helps families with disabilities in the Greater Philadelphia area, and serves as a senior adviser on diversity, equity, and inclusion for a national project funded by Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute. @AnnaPerng