Concerned about equity in vaccine distribution, Newport News is making efforts focused on accessibility

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Jessica Nolte, The Daily Press
·6 min read
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If Newport News Mayor McKinley L. Price had it his way, the city would be in charge of its own coronavirus vaccination distribution.

“Just give me the vaccine, we can take care of it,” Price said with a small chuckle Tuesday.

He’s been frustrated with the vaccine rollout — like many local leaders — and is concerned about making sure it’s distributed equitably.

“If I had a magic wand, and the vaccine available, I would first like to bypass the health department and have it directly to the city where we have partnerships with Riverside, we have our EMTs trained, we have volunteers trained. We have demonstrated at CNU that we can put shots in arms at a great rate, an efficient rate and a very safe rate,” Price said.

Newport News started operating a temporary vaccination clinic in late January at Christopher Newport University in partnership with York County and Riverside Health System. The city has trained school nurses and medics to administer the vaccine.

With 15 vaccinators and about 65 volunteers, the clinic is able to vaccinate about 1,800 to 2,000 people a day, based on availability of the vaccine. The shots are offered primarily to essential workers with occasional appointments available to people selected by the health department who are 65 or older or with underlying health conditions.

In early February, Price represented the African American Mayors Association in a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, and Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House COVID-19 response.

“We began the new year with hope and optimism thanks to the COVID vaccine, but have been challenged recently due to the slow speed at which vaccines are being administered in many communities,” Price told Harris.

He said the city has struggled during the rollout and people are scared and frustrated because of a “lack of information and unreturned calls and emails and failure of the department to provide an adequate timeline”

Price also raised concerns about whether health departments had vaccine distribution plans that focus on communities of color.

“Our Black and brown residents face a higher mortality rate from the coronavirus and are in desperate need of the vaccine,” Price said.

Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that people from “racial and ethnic minority groups” are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, facing an increased risk of getting sick and dying from the disease.

The CDC attributes the increased risk to “social determinants of health, such as poverty and healthcare access, affecting these groups are interrelated and influence a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.”

The organization is still working with states to obtain more information about the race and ethnicity for reported cases because not all areas are collecting and providing information based on that demographic.

Price said he found his conversation with the vice president reassuring, highlighting her effort in hosting the dialogue and the chair of the health equity task force’s participation in the call.

Zients, coordinator of the White House COVID-19 response, told the mayors they needed to keep equity at the center of their local response to the vaccination effort, something Price says he’s determined to do not just with a focus on race, but also making sure the vaccine is accessible to people who may struggle with technology and access to transportation.

For its part, Newport News is going to start by operating two closed vaccination clinics — one Saturday and one the following Saturday — in the Southeast community in partnership with Riverside Health System, Achievable Dream and local churches. Between the two clinics, there will be enough doses of the vaccine to inoculate 500 people older than 65.

“I know our community has its issues with historical events with medicine, so we’re trying to make sure that the source that is leading this is a trustworthy source to the minority community,” Price said of his partnerships with churches. “Having the vaccine available and people believing in it are two different things. You can have all the vaccine you want, but if people don’t come get the shots, it’s not doing any good.”

Some local churches have started creating waiting lists. They’re even helping people register who may have had difficulty doing it on their own.

“The way the system works has contributed to inequities because you have to have an electronic device to register. The distribution — where the vaccines are given — means you have to have transportation to get there. All of those issues, I think, lead to us having a situation where the people who are in most need are the ones not getting the vaccine,” Price said.

About 20 predominantly African American churches in Chesapeake have used a similar strategy, reaching out to residents over the age of 65 by knocking on doors in South Norfolk and making cold calls. The Chesapeake Coalition of Black Pastors partnered with Chesapeake Regional Healthcare to vaccinate about 2,000 people at a two-day clinic that launched Feb. 16.

When Harris spoke with the association of African American mayors from across the country, she reminded them that equity and equality are “two different things.”

“Equality suggests everyone gets the same thing, but that often assumes everyone starts out at the same place,” Harris said. “When we, as an administration, talk about equity we understand then that since everyone does not start out at the same place, our focus needs to be on making sure that everyone ends up in the same place.”

Price said “doing more of the same” is the best way forward for ensuring equitable vaccine distribution in Newport News. When he says that, he’s referring to the efforts the city and its leaders have been making to keep building relationships and trust with people in the community. He plans to keep looking for ways to provide clinics — like the ones to be offered in the Southeast community — that are accessible to those who work and those who don’t.

He wants to make it easier for people who don’t have the technology or the know-how to register online because he says they’re often the ones facing the greatest risk from the coronavirus.

The biggest problem the city is facing boils down to the number of doses available.

Price said the last time he looked, the Peninsula Health District had a backlog of 55,000 people registered for the vaccine.

The Peninsula Health District serves five cities and counties — Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg, and York and James City counties. Its leadership staff also serves Hampton, though Hampton has a separate budget.

The health district’s website encourages people to register for the vaccine online using the statewide system, but it cautions that it may take four to five weeks for eligible people to be scheduled for an appointment. All of the health districts in Virginia were still vaccinating those identified as eligible in phase 1b, according to the Virginia Health Department’s website.

“The way to get out of these masks eventually and get back to some type of normalcy in the future is going to require that vaccinations be done,” Price said.

He knows people are frustrated by the long waits, he shares in their frustration. He says it’s important, however, to stay engaged and not lose faith.

“People just need to remain patient and know that the shots are coming,” Price said. “People need to know that the process is being done, that it is safe, and that they need to get the vaccine.”

Jessica Nolte, 757-912-1675, jnolte@dailypress.com