How Parkland plans to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to the full diversity of Dallas
I recently received a call from a supporter of Parkland Health and Hospital System, a white woman in her 70s who was eager to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. She was hoping her age and underlying health conditions would make her eligible to be among the first in line once it became available to us. Based on the state criteria, she was eligible and got vaccinated.
That same day I spoke to a young Black nurse working in our hospital, which at the time had a daily census of over 150 COVID-19–infected patients. Also eligible in the early phase, she referenced the Tuskegee experiment and told me she was not interested in getting vaccinated in “the first round.”
Black and Hispanic populations have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls for attention to minority groups in its ethical principles for allocating vaccines. However, we are in jeopardy of not vaccinating many in these higher-risk groups because of their distrust of the vaccine despite its remarkable effectiveness and very favorable short-term safety profile.
We hazard perpetuating well-documented disparities if we are not intentional in our methods to vaccinate residents in our poor and minority communities. It is our charge to educate the community and target resources so those groups disproportionately affected by COVID-19 will be among the early recipients of the vaccine.
Prior to the pandemic, 11% of the population viewed vaccines as more dangerous than the diseases they are designed to prevent, according to Gallup polling. That is a highly skeptical group, and it is likely that a large percentage of them will reject the COVID-19 vaccine when offered.
Political and social unrest this year has contributed to additional mistrust. According to several polls, interest in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine showed a roughly 20 percentage-point decline from May to October, at which time polls showed a 38% to 61% willingness to receive a vaccine.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer prompted protests and an unprecedented dialogue on racism and equity across the country. People became more educated on the history of systemic racism and its manifestations. This greater understanding of past mistreatment can feed skepticism today that minority groups will be treated equitably by the scientific institutions intending to help them.
Recent attention to previous injustices due to widespread diversity discussions and allyship demonstrates the ample reasons for minorities to be skeptical. Historical occurrences such as J. Marion Sims’ gynecologic advances, which were developed as a result of experiments on slaves, and the Tuskegee syphilis study, as well as the sustained racial disparities in health outcomes, provide Black people reason to doubt institutional medicine. A poll of Black and Latino communities by COVID Collaborative, Langer Research, UnidosUS and the NAACP reported that intended vaccine uptake is lowest among those who place a high importance on being Black or feel a strong sense of belonging to the Black community.
Though resistance to vaccination is lower among Hispanic patients compared to Black patients, other concerns could pose barriers to vaccine uptake among this population. For example, according to research published on JAMA Network, in the aftermath of the January 2020 Supreme Court ruling that allowed the Trump administration to proceed with a new rule defining a public charge, 11.6% of low-income Texans reported having friends or family who avoided public programs or medical care in the past year due to immigration-related concerns.
More recently, the public’s perception of the vaccine is shifting. After the presidential election and the release of promising news about COVID-19 vaccines, polls by Gallup and the Kaiser Family Foundation have shown increasing acceptance, with 63% to 71% of those surveyed indicating they would definitely or probably get vaccinated.
Even so, another recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 15% of people definitely would not get a COVID-19 vaccine even if deemed safe by scientists and available for free. That doesn’t leave a great deal of room if we are to vaccinate 80% of the population necessary to achieve herd immunity. In that poll, 34% expressed desire to get the vaccine as soon as possible.
Two groups remain, which will be the focus of intense outreach in the months ahead: those who are taking a wait-and-see approach (39%) and those who say they would get vaccinated only if it was required (9%).
The path to reaching those who are vaccine-hesitant — with a focus on those historically underserved — must include multiple approaches.
Of those in the general population with a wait-and-see attitude, 76% trust their local health department to provide reliable vaccine information and 87% trust their own health care provider. As a public health system, Parkland has an opportunity to educate its 15,000 staff, many of whom are health care providers who reflect the diversity of the community, and with the reasonable expectation that they will subsequently influence others in the community.
Before the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines arrived, I had a conversation with a Black housekeeper in the hospital who was reluctant to take the vaccine. Her concern was that she would catch COVID-19 from the vaccine, a concern raised by 50% of Black people polled who are hesitant to get vaccinated, according to Kaiser Family Foundation. We discussed how the vaccine works and I assured her that I was going to receive it. A week later, after confirming that I had indeed been vaccinated, she proudly told me she was scheduled to be vaccinated and had convinced two other housekeepers to do the same. We need to look for every opportunity to allay fears and encourage uptake, and scale those one-on-one conversations to reach thousands.
Within our health system we are providing multiple forums for information, including virtual town halls (the first of which froze computers because about 2,000 people joined), emails, a chief executive letter to employees’ homes, features in weekly health system publications, and a public display of vaccine administration to frontline clinical leaders broadcast live on local television.
System leaders’ vaccinations were captured on video to be broadcast on loops on video screens at the employee time clocks. In the first three days of its availability, we vaccinated more than 3,500 health care workers — roughly 60% of our initial vaccine allocation. A high level of participation among the Parkland staff is important for the system itself, but equally important is the message it sends to the community.
We must take advantage of the multiple ways people are open to considering the vaccine messages. Americans’ trust in health information sources remained stable from 2005–2015, with a high level of trust in health care providers and government health agencies. In addition to these traditional sources of information, Black people are two to three times more likely than white to trust charitable organizations and religious leaders, according to research published in the American Journal of Health Promotion.
And research published in the American Journal of Public Health shows that older Black Americans report significantly more trust than those who are white in informal information sources for health care information, including family or friends and church or religious leaders. Spanish-speaking Hispanic populations demonstrate higher trust in cancer information presented via television or radio compared to non-Hispanic white populations, according to research by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and the difference was greater among those with less than a high school education.
Parkland’s approach to instilling trust in our patients and the community at large will include two different strategies: outreach to established patients, and outreach to high-risk community members.
Parkland provided services to more than 415,000 unduplicated patients in the last two-year period, roughly 16% of Dallas County’s population. Kaiser Family Foundation polling shows that 85% of people trust their own doctor or health care provider as a source of reliable information on a COVID-19 vaccine. That is higher than any other source, so the tried-and-true, ask-your-doctor approach is still our best tool to inform and build trust in the vaccine.
Parkland follows the recommendations from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and our state health department for vaccine distribution. However, with limited supplies, a dilemma arises as to which people receive the available vaccine. We incorporate additional measures to ensure the most benefit from receiving the vaccination in the patient groups. As each group is created based on the prespecified criteria from the government (for example, those aged 65 and older with three or more comorbidities), we consider additional vulnerability factors incorporating social determinants of health. This includes capturing the area deprivation index from the neighborhood in which the individuals live. This block-level measure looks at domains including income, education, employment and housing quality to identify socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
In addition to this index, we consider the proximity of our patients to other active COVID-19 cases in their communities. This proximity index is a predictive-analytics score that factors in the distance of the individual to the closest three cases of COVID-19 as well as the overall density of cases in their block-level living community. We have screened more than 570,000 patients for this index and have found that 23.3% of patients scoring high on the proximity index are positive for COVID-19 within 14 days if they are tested.
By combining the Area Deprivation Index and Proximity Index into an aggregate social and vulnerability risk index, we are able to prioritize people within a vaccine phase group to ensure that those who are most socioeconomically vulnerable and at highest risk due to proximate outbreaks in their local communities get called first to schedule their vaccines.
We will reach out to patients using the previously discussed prioritization process via multiple modes — calling them via a centralized call center and messaging them via the patient online portal (in which 41% of our patients are enrolled), asking them to schedule vaccine appointments.
We currently have four approved decentralized major community outpatient sites for administering immunizations. In addition, we are using our drive-through COVID-19 testing locations to create separate pathways to receive the vaccination. These vaccination administration locations have been selected partially due to their ability to maintain the required temperatures of the vaccines, but also by their proximity to the more socioeconomically at-risk populations.
The online portal will also help by reminding patients when it is time to receive the second dose of the vaccination, which is scheduled at the time of their first dose. They will be able to self-schedule the appointment, and our call center is contacting patients who have failed to schedule or to show for a followup vaccine within the four-day window of opportunity.
We will also push immunizations to patients in a typical manner, for example when patients are being seen in the clinics for routine health care. Many of our patients have difficulty with transportation, time away from work, child care or other barriers that make it difficult to make specific vaccine-related visits. This method will better allow us to address any patient fears, concerns or questions about the vaccine on the spot and encourage acceptance just as we do with the influenza vaccine. Through this push and pull approach, we are now administering between 2,000 to 2,500 vaccinations per day.
We will disseminate accurate information on the vaccines through trusted community sources, much like we did in promoting the availability of testing for COVID-19 in order to reach those who may not have regular contact with the health care system. These approaches include the following:
- We utilize Black and Hispanic media through a combination of free and paid online, print, TV and radio messages. News outlets such as Univision and Telemundo have very large penetrations in Dallas and are trusted sources of information for the Spanish-speaking population. We pair Hispanic health care professionals with local TV and radio personalities to promote messages related to COVID-19. We have taken a similar approach with local radio stations with largely Black audiences.
- We have hosted several conference calls with 30 or more local pastors (in addition to over 40 calls with local chambers of commerce, civic organizations, political leaders, school group and others) to provide information related to COVID-19. We will replicate that model with the information on the importance of receiving the vaccination.
In 2019, the Center for Innovation and Value at Parkland created a Health Ambassadors program with the initial goal of improving vaccine uptake in the 75217 ZIP code, an area with a large Hispanic population and poor health outcomes. The program engages local high school students as ambassadors to influence health behaviors in their community.
Through facilitated focus groups with families in this area, we learned about mistrust and misinformation and how to overcome these barriers with relevant messaging. For a flu drive during the COVID-19 pandemic, the health ambassadors delivered culturally specific messages at churches, schools and on local Spanish-language radio. Community members agreed to co-lead the no-cost vaccine events, resulting in a successful campaign of 1,300 influenza vaccinations given over 16 hours at three events. Most participants were uninsured or underinsured, and many reported never taking a flu vaccine in the past. Perhaps the most promising sign of building trust was that health ambassadors reported that vaccine awareness improved among members of their community.
This community-engaged approach is simple in design and highlights a need to recognize both the message and messenger to move a scientifically sound vaccine from development to uptake in the greater population.
Mistrust in the health system is not the sole factor in lower uptake of preventive measures. Other factors such as access to a regular source of care, cost and physician bias also play important roles. In addition to addressing concerns about the vaccine itself, providers must address a practical concern of access for traditional underserved communities. To improve access, Parkland is making COVID-19 vaccines available at multiple sites in these communities and at no cost.
Early in the pandemic we saw a disproportionate number of testing sites in more affluent sections of Dallas County, where more health care and pharmacy providers are located. We expected to see a similar pattern once widespread vaccination became available, and therefore Parkland will target those underserved areas as it did with COVID-19 testing.
Practical considerations will include which vaccine to make available to which population and at which sites. For instance, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires strict handling procedures and specialized freezers to maintain a very low temperature, with a small window for thawing and administration. That vaccine is being administered on the hospital’s main campus. The Moderna vaccine has less stringent handling requirements and therefore has been used at decentralized clinics and the drive-through sites. At the county jail we will likely prefer a one-time vaccine for ease of administration among the corrections staff and to account for those individuals who are incarcerated for under 21 days.
A principal determinant in locating vaccine sites will be the social and vulnerability risk index to focus on the higher-risk populations, particularly where alternative providers are not meeting the need. Providers will receive the vaccine for free and can bill insurers for a dispensing fee; the Provider Relief Fund (part of the federal CARES Act) will reimburse for administration to uninsured individuals. Given the public health importance of reaching as many people as possible, we will highlight the fact that there is no expected payment in our messaging to remove that barrier from any potential recipient.
Regaining trust in medical systems and health interventions requires a commitment to show up in those underserved communities, listen to their concerns, and include their voices in addressing those concerns with the broader public. We must be intentional in our efforts, employ multiple communication strategies, and make the process easy if we are to successfully get the COVID-19 vaccine to the communities most in need that have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus.
Frederick P. Cerise MD is chief executive of Parkland Health and Hospital System.
Brett Moran, MD, associate chief medical officer and chief medical information officer, at Parkland, and Kavita Bhavan, MD, chief innovation officer at Parkland and associate vice chair of internal medicine at UT Southwestern, contributed to this report.
This column was first published in NEJM Catalyst, which granted The Dallas Morning News permission to reprint.
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