Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the chair of the White House's COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, says she has no evidence to indicate that immigrants crossing the border are contributing to the spread of the virus.
- Welcome back to "Face the Nation." We learned early on in this pandemic that the coronavirus disproportionately affects communities of color. Saturday, we spoke with Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the chair of the COVID-19 Health Equity Task force, about how the Biden administration plans to tackle the problem of racial health disparity.
Doctor, our new CBS News poll shows that vaccine hesitancy has actually ebbed among racial minorities. And that started about mid-January. We are now seeing that Black Americans are as likely as white Americans to say that they're willing to get vaccinated. Are you also seeing that shift?
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: Yes, this is great news. We see vaccine confidence growing in all groups across the country. And so now the work is to make sure that people can connect with vaccine when they're eligible. But it is very promising.
I'm hearing the same thing, that confidence is high. We are at a great moment. We have three vaccines authorized in the United States for emergency use. And people are getting more eager to get connected with those.
- So is vaccine hesitancy no longer an issue?
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: We absolutely have to meet people where they are, whether we are talking about vaccine confidence or really engagement with health care more broadly. There are institutions, unfortunately, when we think of our history, both in terms of health care, even at times the federal government, that have actively earned distrust in many communities, including communities of color.
The reality is that the process has been data-driven, grounded in science, thoroughly and rigorously reviewed by independent scientists. We've had diverse scientists at every step of the way. And also, who was involved in the clinical trials? I'm so grateful to the scientists and the clinical trial participants. Over 30% of them identify as diverse.
So these are some of the key bits of information that trusted messengers across the country are getting out. And I think it's making a huge difference. We're starting to see those shifts, as you mentioned, in vaccine confidence.
- So one of the areas where we are still seeing hesitation is, according to our CBSN News poll, is among partisan lines. In fact, unwillingness to get the vaccine is higher among Republicans, specifically younger Republicans. I'm wondering what your plan is to reach them.
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: I think one of the other tragedies of the pandemic has been how it has been so politicized. We see kind of the politicization of just basic public health practice, wearing masks, which we know works and we're asking Americans to do for a bit longer. But we are hopeful.
And we know that the vaccine is just a clear path to getting to the other side of this pandemic. So we recognize that we have kind of unique messages for different groups. That's so important.
- But how do you persuade people who aren't supporters of the president? Are you going to launch public service ads here, reaching out to celebrities who may appeal to these constituents? I mean, what is the way in?
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: We are absolutely aware of the need to reach out and reach across. That is a core principle of this administration. We want to make sure we are meeting everybody where they are. And to your point, we're getting ready to launch that national public education campaign. And we'll work closely with trusted messengers, influencers, and others to get to everyone, whether the hesitancies is based in--
- When will that be?
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: --or anything else.
So we are on the cusp of launching that national public education campaign, timed really appropriately with that increase supply in vaccine that we see coming right down the pike.
- The administration is now going to be directly supplying vaccine doses into community health centers. What does bypassing the governors and going direct to these centers accomplish?
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: So I always say, equity is a team sport. We're going to continue to work so closely and collaboratively with state and local leaders, as we have been this entire time. And there are several federal programs that directly supply vaccine. And all of those have been designed with equity in mind from the beginning.
And that includes the community vaccination centers, those mass vaccination sites. And we have located those in those areas that are hardest-hit, using best practice to make sure people can actually overcome many of those structural barriers to get registered and get vaccinated, as well as the retail pharmacy program.
- So what is the thought behind making doses available to dentists and podiatrists and veterinarians, new providers here? Is the idea that you go in for your teeth to be cleaned, and you get a shot in the arm with a COVID vaccine?
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: So we're very excited to have also announced this week expanding who can vaccinate. It's so important. The core of this work is making sure there's more vaccine. And we have pushed on that, making sure that there are more vaccination sites and venues.
All the people you mentioned will be able to vaccinate. And we encourage them all to go to pag.gov and sign up. See what your state needs and where your state needs you. And so the idea is that these vaccinators will be able to plug into a lot of these existing vaccination venues and give vaccination there.
- I know you've talked a lot about this. And you said a person's zip code is a stronger driver of health than their genetic code. Tell me what you're doing to actually get better data because we know the CDC has reported that race and ethnicity is only available to them for about 53% of all the people who've been vaccinated. So they've only got a partial snapshot of what this country is actually doing. So why can't the federal government get a handle on it?
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: Yeah, this is a key priority. We need better data to know where to target resources. We are working very closely, again, with both providers, as well as state and local health officials. We've already seen great partnerships in that space. And we're seeing the completeness of our data increase. The equity metric tool kit is growing.
- So how do you actually measure whether what you're doing is successful or not?
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: So we, again, will keep pushing to get better, more complete data around variables that are important and relevant, like race and ethnicity. And alongside that, we have been using other equity metrics, and so things like social vulnerability and zip code. And we can do those analysis now to keep track.
- But can the president mandate that?
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: I think our first step in this process has been to work very collaboratively with states and locals. We're working to overcome any challenges that might exist in terms of just data systems and infrastructure.
- If you look at the US border right now, there are about 8,000 unaccompanied migrant children in the custody of Health and Human Services. And COVID distancing policies have been lifted inside of those federal facilities just because there are so many kids there. Are you concerned that this is a real health risk?
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: We definitely are concerned so much for the children who are there at the border for so many reasons, including health. And so this is absolutely something that, as a response team, we're focused on and thinking about.
- So the governor of Texas has said that some of these undocumented migrants who are crossing into his state are spreading the virus. Have you seen any evidence to support that?
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: I have not seen any evidence to support that at all. I mean, I think that it's very important for us, again, as we talk about our goal to vaccinate an entire nation, that we not divide ourselves in this process.
It's key vaccinations are free. We need to make them easy and convenient. And we need to make sure everyone knows that, regardless of documentation status or anything else, quite frankly, that you are eligible for a vaccination here.
- All right Dr. Nunez-Smith, thank you very much for your time today.
MARCELLA NUNEZ-SMITH: Oh, thank you so much.