By Kristen Mitchell
A George Washington University School of Nursing researcher received $1 million in federal support for a new initiative to expand and evaluate COVID-19 vaccine access to increase vaccination rates among communities in the Washington, D.C., region that have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic.
Working with community partners, Y. Tony Yang, the endowed professor in health policy and executive director of the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement, will target racial and ethnic minority groups, including African, Hispanic and Asian communities, living in east and southeast Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland.
As of mid-August, D.C. has a vaccination rate of 56%—higher than the national average. However, only 32% and 24% of residents in wards 7 and 8—where COVID-19 deaths have been among the highest— have been vaccinated, according to DC Health. While Black residents make up about 46% of D.C.’s population, 76% of those who have died from COVID-19 are Black, according to data released by the city. Vaccine uptake is critical to mitigating disproportionate impacts of the pandemic for people of color and reducing racial health disparities going forward, Dr. Yang said.
“When you break down the data, the rate of fully-vaccinated residents in some D.C. areas is like that of Alabama or Louisiana,” he said. “With Delta surging, public health efforts everywhere should be refocused or renewed.”
This cross-jurisdictional, collaborative project is part of a $121 million Biden administration push to support community-based organizations across the country that are working to build vaccine confidence, share factual information about vaccines and answer people's questions about getting vaccinated. GW’s one-year project is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration.
D.C.’s location as a central transit hub, its exclusion from a previous Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) vaccine program and its significant public health disparity across racial and socioeconomic lines make it an ideal location for this type of initiative, Dr. Yang said.
“With a relatively high population density, infectious disease can transmit quickly,” he said. “There is a very high percentage of unvaccinated and vaccine-hesitant minority essential workers in D.C. They are public facing, while not vaccinated.”
Dr. Yang will work with 10 community groups to do outreach to unvaccinated individuals in the region and provide culturally relevant information to dissuade vaccine hesitancy and improve uptake. The funding will allow community groups to hire and train part-time workers to talk about COVID-19 and provide financial incentives for individuals.
This project builds off the ecosystem of relationships Dr. Yang has formed with local organizations through a separate project focused on hepatitis funded by the Office of Minority Health. Expanding from two active federal grants, Dr. Yang will be able to quickly get the COVID-19 project up and going to engage with a targeted 36,000 local individuals in the next 12 months. He hopes this new project will establish a sustainable model that can be used to monitor and assist with COVID-19 vaccination and be reproduced in the future.
The project will also provide opportunities for GW Nursing students, who will be able to obtain clinical experience by volunteering with partnering organizations and acting as providers of compassionate care.