The piece below was based on SCG's program "Funders' Briefing on COVID-19 Vaccine" hosted on Monday, March 1, 2021. We encourage you to watch the recording above for the full discussion.
In March 2021, SCG proudly linked with Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, Los Angeles (EPIP LA) for a far-ranging conversation about one of the most urgent issues of the moment: COVID-19 vaccination, as seen through a lens of equity and access. Rose Veniegas, Senior Program Officer at the California Community Foundation, moderated a panel that included Isabel Bercerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Community Health Centers; Aquillina Soriano Versoza, Executive Director of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California; and Dr. Oliver Brooks, Chief Medical Officer with Watts Healthcare Corporation.
Together, these community and health experts addressed the current challenges in administering the vaccine equitably and the connections these obstacles have to historic inequities.
Understanding Vaccine Hesitancy
Unsurprisingly, many of the inequities of the COVID vaccine distribution process fall along racial and socioeconomic lines. As just one example: according to Brooks, Black Americans have received only about 3 percent of COVID-19 vaccinations, despite that demographic making up 13 percent of the overall population. But this vaccination gap, Brooks said, isn’t simply a question of roll-out procedure — it speaks to both skepticism and hesitance around the vaccine itself.
“In the African-American community, there are legitimate concerns,” Brooks said. “Everyone knows about Tuskegee. Henrietta Lacks. Black women were sterilized forcefully. Latinas were sterilized just last year in detention facilities. So let’s respect vaccine-hesitant people.”
A Need for Trusted Messengers & Partners
In response to what Brooks calls the twin challenges of “logistics and hesitancy” among members of the Black community, Watts Healthcare Corporation recently partnered with East Bay Community Foundation, funded through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the Kaiser Family Foundation, for an innovative program of focus groups, targeted messaging, and influencer outreach.
That program’s intent was ambitious: to gently inform and reframe local “knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs” surrounding COVID-19 and healthcare among underserved populations. Its intimate focus and outreach, respecting the community’s psychology, Brooks said, is crucial to encouraging vaccination by leveraging trusted messengers and messages. This approach’s power is perhaps vital when considering 50% of African-Americans receive medical care from intimately trusted solo and small-group practitioners.
The value of that person-to-person trust — the sort found in churches, neighborhood groups, and among family — reverberated throughout the panel conversation. Soriano Versoza also noted that larger vaccination sites, such as the Forum or the Disney Center, often seem too daunting and ‘militarized’ for Latinx and Filipino visitors who may not speak English fluently or who may feel under threat by the presence of officials. For immigrants who, due to their immigration status, may not be able to use available health services or public benefits, the prospect of lining up at a major vaccination site can be terrifying.
While reinforcing the value of intimate, trust-based connections, Soriano Versoza celebrated the hard work of the peer advocate members at Pilipino Workers Center (PWC), which supports low-wage Filipino immigrants who often live in multigenerational homes, rely on public transportation, lack reliable healthcare, and thus are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. She also noted these groups of peer advocates regularly offer valuable clarity around what might otherwise be confusing information for some communities.
“Messengers matter, and messages matter,” Soriano Versoza said. “Having targeted messages that meet people where they are, and having messengers that [community members] trust is truly important. We need refined ways [to build] real conversations, and to hear real conversations.”
Investing in Community Health Centers
With interpersonal relationship-building so central to vaccination strategy, Becerra noted that, even in the early days of this pandemic, community health centers up and down the state found themselves uniquely positioned to respond to this once-in-a-century crisis.
“We are strategically located not only to do the testing, to do the treatment, to do the education,” Becerra said, “but also to do the vaccines because we're trusted entities [in our communities]. If [policymakers] want to apply the equity lens [to] what they are doing, they cannot leave community health centers out of the mix, because without us, they cannot achieve equity.”
Given community health centers’ strategic placement, their role as trusted messengers in the community, and their rapid pivot to the pandemic, funders should consider making ongoing financial commitments to these local institutions. These investments will help build the infrastructure to provide long-term and reliable support to the institutions that best understand the needs on the ground. Grantmakers can search the zip code of the community they are serving to find and invest in a local health center.
Funders can also leverage and elevate equity metrics, such as the Healthy Places Index (HPI) created by the Public Health Alliance of California, to locate and support regions with more significant health needs and risk factors. These metrics are essential indicators of areas that should be priorities for vaccine distribution and where philanthropy can channel assets and resources to support local efforts.
Resources for Funders' Briefing on COVID-19 Vaccine