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"Ensuring fair and equal distribution for all means reducing avoidable barriers to equity..."

As COVID-19 vaccine supply and availability is increasing, Colorado continues to make progress by fully vaccinating more than 1.3 million (or 1 in 5 Coloradans) as of April 13. 

But how we measure success in vaccinating against COVID-19 requires us to look beyond the number of people vaccinated, and to focus on who is being vaccinated. Equitably protecting Coloradans means ensuring the vaccine is readily available to communities most affected by COVID-19. This includes our underserved communities and communities of color, which are at an alarmingly increased risk of contracting and dying from the virus. 

We know more can and must be done in the space of vaccine equity. To truly address it, we must consider that vaccine equity is also about health equity. It’s about the driving factors in all our communities such as access to housing and transportation or even debunking myths and misinformation about vaccines — from how they were developed and work to how safe and effective they are.  

As a physician of color who cares for the underserved, communities of color and many other Coloradans, I’d like to take a moment to discuss what we can all do to help in finding ways to advance vaccine equity.

Increase access

Ensuring fair and equal distribution for all means reducing avoidable barriers to equity, such as a limited number of vaccine locations in a neighborhood or making vaccine appointments nearly impossible to get without a computer and internet connection. We must design, build and adjust our vaccine campaigns to minimize disparities and maximize equitable outcomes. As an example of this adjustment in action, the state of Colorado recently launched a fleet of buses to provide mobile vaccination clinics to underserved communities across the state. Impressively, each stop of the mobile clinic will see more than 250 doses administered. 

And earlier this month Together We Protect — Colorado’s COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Fund — announced $2.5 million in grants to provide trusted information and increase access to COVID-19 vaccines in communities disproportionally impacted by COVID-19. Together We Protect, is a collaboration of Immunize Colorado, Colorado Vaccine Equity Taskforce and 12 Colorado organizations, including Kaiser Permanente, working together to advance vaccine equity.

As more organizations continue to innovate quickly — like St. Cajetan Catholic Church in Denver which has now hosted seven drive-through vaccination equity clinics — more members of the community will be able to be reached to receive their vaccination.

Improve vaccine confidence

Vaccine equity is mainly about supply of the vaccine, yet the conversation around it is much deeper. It’s about listening to our communities and understanding that while there is an abundance of information available about the vaccine’s safety, a lot of people still have questions or may not even know the right questions to ask. 

Many people in the hardest hit communities are hesitant to get vaccinated — and that’s a valid concern. When people are unsure of how to sign up to receive a vaccination, or are hearing negative rumors, it can lead to distrust. It’s up to us in the health care industry, community leaders and government organizations, and even business-owners to help our communities get their questions answered and dispel misinformation along the way. 

One example of this work in action, Tepeyac Community Health Center and Servicios de La Raza are conducting COVID-19 information outreach efforts in the Hispanic and Latinx communities. These efforts include broadly sharing trusted health and vaccine information with the public with the intent of increasing confidence in vaccination and encouraging people to keep wearing masks, maintain physical distancing, and avoid gatherings.

Advance community support

The COVID-19 pandemic represents the most immediate threat to the health of Coloradans, and barriers to vaccination are real — resulting from various factors such as lack of access, misinformation and justified mistrust among the community. 

But we can use our collective medical and public health knowledge, and long-standing partnerships with community organizations to disrupt and reverse these inequities in vaccine distribution among our underserved communities and communities of color.

As an example, Kaiser Permanente recently provided a donation to eight transportation providers along the Front Range to help get more seniors — which are among the most vulnerable populations — to their COVID-19 vaccination appointments at any eligible vaccine location without cost. 

Importantly, true change — advancing vaccine equity — comes from going further upstream to address the physical, mental and social health needs of our communities. And no one can do it alone. It’s imperative that organizations share their learnings outside of their walls, which is one reason why Kaiser Permanente created a toolkit with information for providers, community organizations, and anyone involved in vaccine administration to help get vaccinations to the people most at risk for COVID-19.

There will come a time when we can all move beyond COVID-19 vaccinations—these conversations will be a distant but lasting memory. For the future, we all have a responsibility to apply the lessons learned from our vaccine equity efforts to further develop paths to an equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and for more equitable approaches to health care access in general. 

Kingsley Okafor, MD, leads Kaiser Permanente’s vaccine hesitancy and equity work in Colorado and is an ophthalmologist and glaucoma specialist who works at the Franklin Medical Offices in downtown Denver.