Residents and local government were left without resources as the pandemic escalated. The Sussex County Health Department closed last March
Residents and local government were left without resources as the pandemic escalated.

Health equity plays a major role in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout for the districts.

RICHMOND – Richmond and Henrico County health officials put out a call. They asked people to fill out a form if they were interested in getting the vaccine. The end result helped shape how and to who they’re distributing.

With over 100,000 people filling out the districts’ vaccination interest form, health officials know knew how many needed help. However, over a month into the vaccination process, the supply still did not meet the demand. This week, Richmond and Henrico received 6,300 doses, down 100 doses from the week before.

Despite the shortage, Gov. Ralph Northam challenged health districts across the state to increase their vaccinations.

“Last week, Gov. Northam asked health systems to use their doses as quickly as possible,” said Amy Popovich, nurse manager for Richmond and Henrico health districts. “And the health systems in our area opted to give us vaccines to support this regional effort to vaccinate some of the most vulnerable, our eldest seniors.”

Over 63,000 seniors above age 65 filled out the districts’ interest form. Given both their vulnerability to the virus and the large number of seniors expressing interest in the vaccine, the sister health departments currently allocate 50% of the vaccine they receive to those age 65 and older.

Of the 50% of remaining vaccines, 40% goes to essential workers and 10% goes to congregate populations. 

The health districts placed a clear focus on vaccinating the most vulnerable populations first. But that didn’t mean reaching that population was a simple task.

Richmond Health Equity

Jackie Lawrence, director of health equity for the Richmond and Henrico health districts, said her goal is to make sure everyone gets vaccinated, not just certain groups.

“Health equity is really a way that we can ensure that we are addressing the uneven health outcomes that we know are a very real reality for our society and even globally,” Lawrence said.

She noted that health equity gives everyone a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. Proper health equity also removes obstacles to health, such as poverty and discrimination. Additionally, health equity calls for addressing the outcome of those obstacles.

“What these consequences often look like are a lack of power. They often look like a lack of access to adequate income, education, healthcare, transportation and even healthy food,” Lawrence said. “And these are just to name a few things that we definitely consider when we engage with the community, and especially when we think about the equitable distribution of this vaccine.”’

Lawrence expressed commitment from the sister health departments to providing health equity.

“What we do is look at, what is our data telling us? What is our data telling us about folks that are experiencing many of these obstacles? Or what is that data telling us about those who are dying and being hospitalized more often than other groups?” Lawrence said. “So not saying the health system is not valuing everyone, but when we have to make decisions about equity, we do have to have some kind of framework, some kind of decision-making process.”

In addition to looking at the data, the health departments delved into the barriers that individuals in their area faced.

RELATED: Northam Stretches Some Restrictions Through February

Mending the Divide in Richmond

The Richmond and Henrico health departments recently rolled out a new way for people to receive their shots. They took a mobile unit to areas that presented difficulty with transportation.

“When we think about folks who are challenged with transportation, we understand, like, hey, sometimes we need to come to folks,” Lawrence said. “We need to come to them.”

Last week, the mobile unit took over 300 vaccines to inmates. This week, the mobile unit will focus on those residing at independent living facilities.

“We estimate that there are about 50 independent living facilities in our area, with about 7,000 residents who will need vaccinating,” Popovich said.

Technological barriers – like filling out the online interest form – presented issues for some people, especially seniors unfamiliar with computers or smart phones. Additionally, inadequate access to income and healthcare created compounding burdens.

Race and ethnicity also presented disparities.

“We know that globally and nationally, especially here locally, we have seen that the hospitalizations and deaths are highest for our Black and Latin-Hispanic community members,” Lawrence said. “These are our neighbors, these are our friends, our family members. These are folks that we see every day and they’re showing up most in the numbers.”

Given the various challenges amplified for certain members of the community, the health departments took a deliberate approach to the vaccine rollout.

“It’s important that we don’t take a free-for-all approach,” Lawrence said. “We want to be very intentional because when we don’t do that, there are folks that end up falling through the cracks.”

A Silver Lining for Richmond

Over the weekend, Popovich participated in a large-scale vaccination event, which focused on seniors. With over 100 volunteers helping total, Popovich noted that at one point, 84 vaccinators were on the floor.

“I got to vaccinate, myself, as I am a registered nurse,” Popovich said. “It was a really meaningful and profound experience to get to hear seniors’ voices and life experiences about how hard this last year has been, but how getting the vaccine really brought them hope for what is to come.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com