No one can dispute that we are in the midst of a history making week —the inauguration of a new President and the departure of a President under the cloud of accusations that he incited an insurrection against American democracy. However, the coming week will prove to be a week like no other in American history for more reasons than what is happening in our country’s capital.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of one of the deadliest and costliest pandemics in American history, we now have the tools literally in our hands to bring this viral villain to its knees. The COVID-19 vaccine has arrived. It is now up to us to ensure that every eligible Connecticut resident receives it expeditiously.
As the numbers reveal, we still need to improve on the efficiency and rapidity of our distribution system. The real challenge is not going to be in establishing mass vaccination clinics — surely this is within our capability. No, the real challenge is going to be to get those at greatest risk vaccinated — our vulnerable populations composed primarily of people of color.
As history has demonstrated time and time again, these populations —our poor, minority populations– are once again being disadvantaged. Burdened with an understandable yet frightening degree of distrust of government sponsored initiatives, they are hesitant to step forward and roll up their sleeves.
Sadly, their distrust is being fueled by the systems we have put in place. In order to get scheduled to receive vaccine, one has to navigate a complex scheduling system called VAMS. This system requires a person to be computer literate, have access to the technology and most notably, speak English.
In all fairness, the state has recognized the limitations of this system and has set up a Call Center via 211. While a commendable effort, it will likely be flooded with calls not solely from the underserved community — the intended target population.
This week we are also celebrating an American hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It has been 52 years since Dr. King’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet. However, his rhetoric rings loud and clear, especially during this time of racial tension that permeates our very polarized society.
More than 50 years ago, Dr. King stated: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman….”
Sadly, injustice in health persists today. We cannot allow our roll out of vaccinations to fall prey to this injustice. We need far more resources than we currently have to reach out to every single person at risk of succumbing to this virus. Rather than devoting resources to complex computer systems, we need literally an army of foot soldiers, reaching out one on one to those without easy access. We need systems that do not disadvantage the poor and the disenfranchised such as what is in place today. We need to collectively understand that until we are all safe, no one is safe.
What would Dr. King say today? Obviously no one knows for sure. My hope is that he would repeat his words that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Justice demands that we ensure that access to the COVID vaccine is equally available to all.
Suzanne Lagarde MD is the CEO of Fair Haven Community Health Care.