Inclusive Economy | April 6, 2021

Four ways that private funders can ensure vaccines reach hard-hit communities

Sharon Knight
Guest Author

Sharon Knight

The Great Vaccination Drive is on. It’s tempting to think that the pandemic is soon to be in the rear-view mirror and a sense of normalcy is just over the horizon as drug companies ramp up COVID-19 vaccine production, the Biden Administration launches a coordinated federal response and states accelerate vaccine administration to nearly 3 million doses per day.

But the pandemic and its side effects won’t end with a shot in the arm, especially when those shots are not being distributed equitably to communities of color and others that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.  The gap is widening between those Americans who are being vaccinated and those who are most at risk of contracting the virus and transmitting it.

Government is rightly focused on rapidly deploying vaccines through high-volume, large-venue vaccination sites. The private sector is spurring development of a range of equipment, novel testing solutions and technology services. But there is a swath of our citizenry that won’t get vaccinated without an intervention backed by philanthropists.  Defeating COVID-19 and the proliferation of new variants requires funders to support alternative vaccination models tailored to the needs of individual communities.  For herd immunity to be achieved, all Americans must have the opportunity to be vaccinated. 

We can’t afford donor fatigue as we confront the last-mile delivery challenges of COVID-19. Philanthropy— individuals supporting local initiatives and foundations supporting larger initiatives—must take a leadership role in supporting models that will ensure that disadvantaged communities are no longer left behind in this pandemic and that the nation and all its citizens are not disadvantaged when future pandemics and natural disasters inevitably occur.

The key lies in partnering with faith and community-based organizations, or CBOs – from the delivery of cash assistance and wraparound services to support those who cannot readily isolate or quarantine, to information campaigns that combat misinformation and provide culturally relevant information to more accessible vaccination points in vulnerable communities.

Equitable vaccine administration has risen to the top of community needs. Here are four key elements Stop the Spread is pioneering alongside philanthropists for successful community-based vaccine administration that complements government-funded initiatives.

Ensure that community organizations can conduct local outreach

By partnering with trusted community-based and faith-based organizations, opportunity exists to educate and address very real concerns about vaccine safety that are rooted in systemic racism. These organizations can also combat misinformation that is not only proliferating but, unfortunately, being targeted at black and brown populations. 

In New York City, Stop the Spread has been working with Community Healthcare Network to design and implement four fixed vaccination sites and additional “pop-up” sites vaccine sites co-located in faith and community-based organizations in underserved neighborhoods, from Brooklyn’s East NY neighborhood to Jamaica Queens.

In addition, organizations and community leaders need access to credible vaccine educational content that is clear, consistent and culturally relevant that can be communicated across multimedia formats in the languages spoken within the community. Many organizations would also benefit from the implementation of text-based messaging platforms that enable two-way communication to convey information, support appointment scheduling and reminders, and check on health status. Several companies are working hard to provide just these solutions including ConsejoSano, CareMessage and mPulse.  

Schedule vaccination appointments in ways that acknowledge the digital divide

Digital literacy and lack of access to devices or to the Internet presents a real challenge to scheduling vaccinations. Organizations like Epicenter have become critical intermediaries to bridge the digital divide. What launched as a newsletter to help New Yorkers to get through the pandemic has become a bridge for community members to register for vaccines. The group has helped more than 2,600 people who aren’t digitally savvy or don’t have the time to check multiple websites get vaccinated. 

More needs to be done. It is important that information and community vaccination sites are readily discoverable, and appointments can be scheduled via non-digital means, when necessary. This means multi-lingual support staff that can visit local businesses and homes with information and scheduling support as well as the creation of call centers or augmented 211 services. Never has the role of community health workers and promotoras been so important. It is time to support the recruitment and training needed to expand these vital roles. With 20+ leaders and organizations, HealthLeads has launched a health equity movement with community health workers at the core.

Make vaccination sites accessible 

Sites must not be dependent on having access to a car for either transportation or a “drive-through” experience. Walkups must be possible, and sites must be open in the evenings and on weekends to ensure access outside of traditional working or caretaking hours. 

Scheduling that supports multiple family members or friends being vaccinated together may also remove some transportation and mobility barriers. Clinical and administrative staff needs to be trained, multilingual and, ideally, from the community, with additional translators available to ensure that information can be accurately imparted. 

Communities have created novel approaches to broaden access. Community Health Center, Inc., a private non-profit agency providing primary care and social services throughout Connecticut, partnered with the art showcase center in New Haven, NXTHVN, to offer a safe and accessible place to provide COVID-19 vaccines to the public. Community Health Center is fostering such partnerships and adapting all of their vaccination sites across the state of Connecticut to increase accessibility.

Take advantage of post-vaccination observation periods

Vaccination appointments present a unique opportunity to engage individuals who are visiting not once but twice for a vaccination to participate in a health screening and a basic needs assessment. Two 15-30-minute observation periods represent valuable time to engage community members with healthcare and other needed services. While these touchpoints can be an important starting point for addressing systemic healthcare inequity, they also have implications for additional staffing and tools and the involvement of other service providers. 

In Los Angeles, Stop the Spread is partnering with St. John’s Well Child and Family Center to launch a “vaccine+” model, which optimizes the 15-30-minute post-vaccination observation window to address clinical and social needs that will long outlast the pandemic if left unaddressed.

With vaccinations politicized and the “wait and see” population still significant, vaccinating all Americans remains a daunting challenge. Solving this challenge requires support from philanthropists who can fund the development, translation and distribution of multimedia information; who can secure sites and equip them with needed infrastructure and supplies; who can finance needed staffing and training; and who can provide or subsidize additional services such as access to virtual primary or mental healthcare appointments or needed medication. Community-led philanthropic funds such as the Sonoma Valley Catalyst Fund in Sonoma, CA are providing just such funding but more efforts like theirs are. 

Philanthropists stepped up in profound ways in 2020 to fight the pandemic’s worst effects. But the work is far from done and the challenge is far greater than anything we’ve collectively faced before. Philanthropists and other funders must answer the call once again to help finally put the pandemic behind us. 

Margret Trilli is CEO of ImpactAssets, a nonprofit impact investing organization with $1.4 billion in assets. Sharon Knight is executive director of Stop the Spread, a COVID-relief organization affiliated with ImpactAssets.