By Regina L. Scott, Director of Community Programs/Engagement at Highmark Wholecare

As we enter the height of cold and flu season, combined with the constant threat of new COVID strains, it’s important to remember that life-threatening viruses are still actively spreading at high rates. To compound the issue, millions of Americans, especially among our youngest and most vulnerable demographics, have yet to receive a vaccine or booster.

When the COVID-19 vaccination was first introduced, an Axios/Ipsos poll showed that just 14 percent of Black adults said they completely or mostly trust that a vaccine will be safe and only 18 percent trusted that it will be effective. For Latino adults, those numbers were 34 percent and 40 percent, respectively. To date, limited data are available to examine racial disparities among booster shot recipients and children. Moreover, some states have reduced the frequency of their reporting of vaccinations by race/ethnicity or stopped reporting these data altogether, further limiting data available to understand vaccination patterns. The bottom line is that the issue of vaccine hesitancy is far from resolved and healthcare mistrust remains prevalent.

Minority communities are unique for many reasons, and the medical community must not only recognize that, but adjust their messaging and approach to the COVID-19 vaccine in order to address existing barriers. Yes, it’s important to provide adequate education and access to the vaccine, but it’s more important to break the cycle of distrust, confusion, and fear. Beyond simply making such vaccines available in underserved, minority communities, we must also be intentional about building a foundation of trust in the health system that leads to a belief that these vaccines are safe, accessible, and effective. And there is one initiative in Pennsylvania that has exhibited relentless dedication to pursuing this mission since the day the nation declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Pennsylvania’s first initiative of its kind, the CATE COVID-19 mobile testing and vaccination unit underscores the importance of immunization awareness. Many of the individuals served by CATE have limitations and barriers that would have otherwise prevented them from receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, transportation and language being among the largest. This mobile unit strategically selects locations in underserved communities that are accessible by walking or public transportation. And every event is staffed by diverse, bilingual Community Health Workers (CHW) equipped with resources in both English and Spanish.

The CATE initiative remains an important reminder of the Commonwealth’s need to recognize and actively address the health disparities and related care gaps that still exist among our minority populations. I strongly believe that mobile health units, like CATE, are a model for what can be accomplished for other health initiatives that seek to reach diverse and underserved populations.

And the power to, quite literally, fuel these initiatives lies in partnerships. CATE was powered by funding and support received from more than 200 community partners, the longest standing being Highmark Wholecare.

But even with these efforts, many people across the Commonwealth continue to lack access to basic healthcare resources extending far beyond COVID-19 vaccines. How can we ask people to focus on preventative health when they are faced with far greater issues that are major social determinants of health?

Issues like safe and affordable housing, reliable jobs, access to healthcare and medicine, dependable transportation, and financial literacy are the glaring issues we, as a community, need to recognize and address first, before we can also expect individuals to “trust the system” and follow healthcare guidelines like receiving a vaccine. Addressing these social determinants of health requires a commitment from all community leaders and business partners, who have side-stepped the minority community for far too long. It will take a proactive and collective effort to break this cycle – and it can begin with supporting more initiatives like mobile health units.

I urge Pennsylvania’s community health partners to increase their efforts to reach our minority communities with health resources. However, it will take time and the right approach to instill trust and gain credibility. This includes meeting people where they are, making education and resources accessible, understandable, and translated where needed, and breaking down any financial barriers.

And to my fellow brothers and sisters of color, in order for us to traverse these health disparities, we have to be proactive contributors. Simply put, we have to take part in the process. That will look different for everyone, but at a minimum, I encourage you to educate yourself with trustworthy sources, speak to medical professionals you respect, and seek guidance from those who have your best interests at heart.

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Regina L. Scott serves as the Director of Community Programs/Engagement at Highmark Wholecare. She is a senior administrator with 20+ years of executive-level management experience related to public policy, program administration, and operations management related to health, human services, and public welfare. 

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