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Volunteer ‘vaccine corps’ could boost outreach to underserved

The U.S. faces one of the most consequential public health campaigns in history right now: to vaccinate the population against COVID-19 and, especially, to get shots into the arms of people who cannot easily navigate getting vaccinated on their own.

Time is of the essence. As new, potentially more dangerous variants of this coronavirus spread to new regions, widespread vaccination is one of the most powerful and effective ways to slow, if not stop, the virus’s spread.

Mobilizing large “vaccine corps” could help to meet this urgent need.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School is testing that concept now. So far, 500 students and hundreds of others have volunteered for vaccine corps roles. Graduate nursing and medical students, under the direction of local public health leaders, have already been vaccinating first responders and vulnerable populations, demonstrating that a vaccine corps can be a force multiplier for resource-strained departments of public health.

On Tuesday, a mass vaccination site will be set up nearby to vaccinate as many as 2,000 people per day.

A large vaccination corps that includes local medical and public health students could help reach residents who might be missed by public campaigns and hospital outreach efforts. Many students represent their region’s races, ethnicities and backgrounds, which can make it easier for them to connect with people who are hard to reach and might not trust vaccination.

What a vaccine corps looks like

The problem of getting people vaccinated quickly isn’t just about supply – it’s also about having enough people to carry out vaccinations, particularly in hard-to-reach areas.

If quickly mobilized on a large scale, a vaccine corps could directly meet three important challenges: accelerating the nationwide rollout of COVID-19 vaccines; ensuring that doses are distributed equitably to all; and delivering on the promise that all Americans are able to benefit from major medical and public health advances.

Medical, nursing, pharmacy and other health students, as well as retired or unemployed clinicians, could deliver shots, monitor people who were just vaccinated or schedule the second doses that are required for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to be fully effective.

Reaching underserved areas – including their own

In particular, a large, well-organized vaccine corps could play a crucial role in reaching out to people who are underserved, overlooked or hard to reach.

Corps members could staff phone banks to help people who lack internet or struggle to use online scheduling systems find vaccines in their areas and make appointments.

Our students in the vaccine corps have already helped administer vaccines in public housing complexes and homeless and domestic violence shelters. They could also provide transportation to vaccination sites or take doses directly to homebound elders who cannot safely venture out. In Alaska, for example, vaccine providers have been going out by plane and sled to remote villages to reach thousands of residents.

Members of a vaccination corps who share race or ethnicity with area residents can also have an impact on overcoming people’s concerns about getting the vaccine. That’s important.

A poll released Wednesday, conducted by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, found that only 57 percent of Black U.S. residents said they would definitely or probably get the COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 65 percent of Americans who identified as Hispanic and 68 percent as white. Fewer than half of Black Americans surveyed in a separate Kaiser Family Foundation poll in late January believed the needs of Black people were being taken into account.

Rural areas face similar concerns, as well as the geographical challenges of reaching people in remote areas. The Kaiser Family Foundation has found that people who live in rural areas are among the most “vaccine hesitant” groups. In mid-January, it found that 29 percent of rural Americans surveyed either definitely did not want to get the vaccine or said they would do so only if required.

If three or four out of every 10 Americans avoid inoculation, public health officials’ hopes of reaching herd immunity will be in jeopardy.

The potential for scaling up

The U.S. has a long history of creating health corps. After the 9/11 attacks, the federal government launched the volunteer Medical Reserve Corps to mobilize current and former medical professionals and others with needed health skills during emergencies. Several Medical Reserve Corps units around the country are now assisting vaccination efforts.

This concept could be expanded, including by partnering with universities, to have wider, game-changing reach. The model of service our students are testing opens up many possibilities, limited only by a lack of will and imagination.

This article by Michael F. Collins of the University of Massachusetts Medical School is published from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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