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OPINION: Local leaders are essential to equitable vaccine distribution

by Kevval Hanna, Naja Nelson and Dan Vogel | Centre for Public Impact
Friday, 19 March 2021 14:42 GMT

A health worker prepares a dose of the Sinopharm's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, in Lima, Peru, February 9, 2021. REUTERS/Sebastian Castaneda

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Americans of all stripes have the most faith in local government and local leaders. This is the foundation we must build to support widespread vaccination and rebuild trust

Kevval Hanna leads the Inclusive Economies team for the Centre for Public Impact, a nonprofit founded by the Boston Consulting Group.

Naja Nelson works on the City Innovation team for the Centre for Public Impact in North America.

Dan Vogel is the North America Director at the Centre for Public Impact.

With the pandemic’s end in sight, Americans once again face the challenge of the unequal impact of COVID-19 on different communities. This time, inequities are manifesting in vaccine distribution. While 1 in 5 American adults received at least one vaccine dose, there is a large discrepancy in who is getting vaccinated. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in Delaware, only 8% of Black residents received vaccinations despite making up 24% of cases and 23% of deaths. Similar inequities exist among Latinx populations across the country. According to experts, this difference comes from both vaccine barriers and vaccine hesitancy in communities of color.

It isn’t a secret that many Americans lack trust in the federal government, but 2020 laid bare how many Americans lack trust in anything. On its own, this fact would be dangerous. But during a pandemic and with vaccines on the way, it requires immediate action. According to Dr. Fauci, one “cannot properly and successfully implement a public health program when you have so much disagreement in society.” Americans have an opportunity to turn the tide on the deadly COVID-19 pandemic as “highly efficacious vaccines” become available, but that depends on our ability to come together as a nation, to “think about our national life in terms of... ‘we’ and ‘us,’” to “amplify the voices of the marginalized and put their concerns squarely on the agenda for the future.” 

This is a challenging problem, and yet it is a problem that we must solve. In the coming months, many Americans will be asked to take a vaccine by institutions they don’t fundamentally trust. Their lack of trust will span a range of reasons - some as valid as fear of medical abuse, deportation, others as toxic as QAnon - yet each day we miss vaccinating our communities, especially those hardest hit,  is a crack in our collective armor. 

Research shows that Americans of all stripes have the most faith in local government and local leaders. This is the foundation we must build to support widespread vaccination and rebuild trust in the government.

Americans trust figures of authority they can see in person, who they can talk to, and who feel familiar and accessible. It is here, we believe, that the surest path towards widespread vaccination lies, and examples abound to back us up. The Black Doctor’s Covid-19 Consortium in Philadelphia is surpassing the city health department in deploying vaccines, despite not using a pre-registration process, simply because they are seen as a trustworthy organization with deep roots in the community. Similarly, many indigenous communities are doing exceptionally well with vaccine distribution because of public officials’ commitment to collaborating with elders and leaders in the community.

Mayors and local officials have consistently led the way throughout the pandemic, and they are already on the frontlines for the vaccination efforts. Local officials intimately understand the problems and influencers in their communities. For example, in Rochester, NY, when officials noticed residents without internet access were struggling to make vaccine appointments, they created a hotline and physical registration hubs throughout the city. Similarly, in California, when leaders noticed that non-English speakers and the elderly were struggling to make appointments, they launched Project Abuelita to aid elderly, disabled, and non-English speaking residents in registering for vaccine appointments. With additional funding and support, local leaders can continue to create solutions that uniquely meet the needs of their communities. 

The road ahead will be long and difficult. Vaccination rates will be the defining factor in the journey still to come for the U.S., beyond this pandemic and into recovery. We must use every tool and ally at our disposal. The funding provided by the American Rescue Plan is an important step in the right direction. Now, with the weight of this support backing them, it is time for local government leaders to once again rise to the challenges of this pandemic. They must lead with integrity, prioritize equity, draw from data, and build trust with the community. Through the actions of local governments, those closest to the communities, we will reach the other side of this crisis.