Thursday , July 29 2021

Providers of underserved communities work toward equitable vaccine distribution

In a mid-February vaccination event held at a community church, Neighborhood Family Practice got doses into the arms of as many Hispanic patients as it had in the first four weeks it had been offering the COVID-19 vaccine.
NFP and other federally qualified health centers have found pop-up vaccine clinics to be incredibly effective and efficient in their efforts to reach minority populations.

“Folks in communities of color were disproportionately impacted in terms of their hospitalizations and deaths,” said Jean Polster, CEO of Cleveland-based NFP. “If we were equitable in the country, we would be focusing on communities of color first. And that’s where I think FQHCs realized that and why we become so critical.”

NFP worked with the Ohio Department of Health to hold the one-day clinic to focus on members of the Hispanic community, who make up about 25% of NFP patients.

Overall, FQHCs are giving a higher percentage of their vaccines to minority populations when compared with other providers in Cuyahoga County, according to data from Better Health Partnership, a collaborative of providers, insurers, employers and community organizations in Cleveland.

Part of this is because FQHCs are tasked with serving underserved communities and vulnerable populations—including Black, Latino, low-income and immigrant populations—so they’re already familiar with and reach these patients.

But in the initial weeks of the vaccine rollout, the centers’ demographics of vaccinated patients mirrored the average across Cuyahoga County providers. FQHCs worked to shift their strategy to ensure they were targeting the minority populations they serve.

Data from Better Health Partnership as of early March showed that 24.2% of individuals who had received at least one dose of the vaccine at a FQHC were Black, compared with 12.6% countywide. At the health centers, 7.9% of vaccines were given to Hispanic/Latino patients, compared with 2.1% among other providers in Cuyahoga County. The rate of vaccines started among Asian patients was 2.2% at FQHCs, pacing slightly behind the county’s 3%. 

FQHCs are distributing a fraction of the vaccines given in Cuyahoga County—about 3%, according to analysis from the Center for Community Solutions. But their expertise in reaching underserved populations put them in a position to help drive racial equity in vaccine distribution. Their model of pop-up clinics in well-known locations with trusted community partners could be useful more broadly as vaccine supply increases.

Plus, the Biden administration has launched the first phase of a program to allocate vaccines directly to FQHCs. AxessPointe Community Health Centers in Akron is the only FQHC in Northeast Ohio included in the pilot and one of three in the state.

AxessPointe has been receiving 200 doses per week from the state, with half dedicated to first doses. The pilot provides an additional 500 per week from the federal allocation. To help target the underserved population, the center took the list of interested and eligible individuals who had registered on its website and pared it down by ZIP code.

Across the region, health leaders are working to ensure they’re not denying anyone the vaccine with their efforts to reduce access barriers across populations, especially those who may face more challenges in getting their dose. Transportation, education, internet/technology access, trust, language barriers, comfort with the vaccine, time off from work may serve as roadblocks.

Care Alliance Health Center saw that the group of patients it was vaccinating initially wasn’t representative of whom it typically serves. With people coming from all over the region to receive their vaccine, the center had to balance pressure from the community with the state eligibility guidelines, said Claude Jones, CEO of the Care Alliance.

“We still have to adhere to the phases,” Jones said. “But we said, ‘OK, if our patients aren’t coming in, let’s meet them where they are.’ “

As the health centers leaned into pop-up events, they shifted their marketing strategy, in many cases allowing the community partners to take the lead. For instance, Circle Health shifted from promoting events on its social media channels to allowing the churches it works with to spread the word, said Eric Morse, CEO of the Centers for Families and Children and the affiliated Circle Health.

This article originally appeared in Modern Healthcare’s sister publication Crain’s Cleveland Business.

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