Dr. Virginia Banks, an infectious disease specialist, is part of a group of Black physicians and scientists who are focused on ways to solve health-care disparities.
Dr. Virginia Banks
Dr. Virginia Banks says if the U.S. really wants to bring the pandemic to an end, it’s going to take mobile vans of vaccines in neighborhoods where people don’t have transportation — and even giving shots at hair salons and barber shops.
As thousands of pharmacies get shipments of doses and start vaccinations at their stores this week, the country is taking a significant step toward reaching more Americans. Public health officials and advocates, however, say that won’t go far enough in communities where people have been the sickest.
More Black and Hispanic Americans have been hospitalized and died from Covid-19. They often face bigger barriers to get vaccine, too: A lack of transportation. A juggle of multiple jobs. Hesitance because of past mistreatment by the medical community.
CVS Health and Walgreens will play a bigger role in the effort as a federal program ships doses to more of their stores and those of other retail pharmacies. The expansion represents a business opportunity for the nation’s two largest pharmacy chains as they get paid for each vaccine and draw more foot traffic to stores. The vaccine rollout will also test the companies’ commitment to expanding health-care access in Black and Hispanic communities.
Banks, an infectious disease doctor in Ohio, is part of an interest group of the Infectious Diseases Society of America that’s made up of Black physicians, scientists and public health officials focused on addressing health-care disparities. She said health-care providers will have to get creative and show commitment. She said they should set up clinics in familiar places, such as churches, and enlist “trusted messengers” like pastors and community leaders.
“You’ve got to look at from a cultural standpoint ‘Where are we?’ and come to us,” she said.
The vaccine’s rollout in the U.S. has been slow and complex. Demand for doses has far outweighed the number of shots available to jab into arms. Online appointment systems have been tricky to navigate and bogged down by heavy traffic. Only two vaccines have emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration so far, and they must stored at cold and ultra-cold temperatures. And only some Americans qualify for the shot, with each state having slightly different criteria to weigh factors like a person’s age, medical conditions or job.
About 48.4 million vaccines have been administered in the U.S. as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 12.1 million people have received both doses of the vaccine — just a small fraction of the 331 million people who live in the U.S.
The country’s goal is to vaccinate between 70% and 85% of the U.S. population — or roughly 232 million to 281 million people — to achieve herd immunity, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical advisor.
People without appointments stand in line to possibly receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine after all appointments have been administered at the Sun City Anthem Community Center vaccination site in Henderson, Nevada, on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.
Roger Kisby | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The messy rollout has led to some getting shots and not others. Most of the nearly 13 million people given at least one shot of a Covid-19 vaccine within the first month of the drugs’ distribution were women, age 50 or older and likely non-Hispanic and White, according to a CDC study.
For vaccine distribution, equity is not only a matter of fairness. It’s also a crucial way to slow the spread in communities where Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are higher. Black and Hispanic Americans are 3.7 times and 4.1 times more likely be hospitalized from Covid than White Americans, according to data reported by the CDC in late November. Both of the minority groups are 2.8 times more likely than White Americans to die from the disease.
In a hard-hit neighborhood, each shot’s impact can be even greater — reaching people who are more at risk as they work in grocery stores or at other frontline jobs or live in a dense apartment or multigenerational households.
Vaccine hesitance is higher among Black and Brown people, too, stemming from the medical community’s history of mistreating minority groups and opening fewer health-care practices in their neighborhoods. A poll of New York residents, conducted by the Association for a Better New York, found that 78% of White residents would take the vaccine as soon as they could compared with 39% of Black residents, 54% of Hispanics and 54% of Asians.
For providers like CVS and Walgreens, having more doses of the vaccine is a business opportunity. They will get paid for each vaccine and the government will pick up the cost if a person does not have health insurance. Jefferies estimated that each shot will have a $13 to $15 gross margin and could yield about $1 billion in incremental gross profits for CVS over the next year.
Both drugstore chains have pinned their strategy on adding more health-care services from primary care clinics to diabetes screenings. They have also stepped up commitments to address racial inequities in response to George Floyd’s killing and nationwide protests. CVS plans to invest nearly $600 million over five years to support public policy initiatives and internal efforts, such as mentoring Black employees and offering free health screenings for blood pressure and cholesterol at stores.