Feb. 4, 2021 -- Scientists developed multiple vaccines for COVID-19 so quickly, they almost made it look easy. In comparison, getting those vaccines into the arms of the people who need them most seems to be the hard part. Across the country, groups and individuals are stepping in to help.

So far, nearly 56 million doses of the vaccine have been distributed in the U.S., and nearly 33 million have been given to around 34 million people, as of Wednesday, according to the CDC. (Both of the currently authorized vaccines require two doses, and almost 6.5 million Americans have received both.) While priority groups are different from state to state, right now, the CDC recommends vaccinating health care personnel, residents of long-term care facilities, essential workers, people over 65 years old, and those over 16 with certain medical conditions.

Vaccinating a Nation, Equitably

Beyond the basic problem of making and distributing hundreds of millions of doses, getting the vaccine to those priority groups poses several challenges, says Muriel Jean-Jacques, MD, who co-wrote an editorial in TheJournal of the American Medical Association called “Vaccine Distribution -- Equity Left Behind?”

Among those challenges:

  • First, the Pfizer vaccine requires deep-freeze storage, which tends to be available only in larger, better-resourced communities. Fixed-income elderly people and low-income essential workers may not live near a facility that can handle it.
  • Second, speedy distribution often requires access to the internet for sign-ups. “Who has the best access to those things? Not people working 12- to 16-hour shifts, who might get penalized if they pull out their phones,” Jean-Jacques says. And elderly people may not have computers or smartphones at home.
  • Third, rushing to get a new vaccine requires a certain level of trust in the system. “We talk about trust as if it’s the person who doesn’t trust who’s the problem, but mistrust comes from decades of egregious activities. We’re not that far from Tuskegee,” she points out, referring to the infamous experiment where Black men with syphilis were purposely left untreated as part of a 40-year study that began in 1932. “Getting something out quickly to a population that may be less trustful is challenging, even beyond the technical and structural location factors.”

Stepping Up and Stepping In

To help make sure the vaccine is reaching the right arms, people who normally might worry only about their own families’ health are getting involved.

In Maryland, a group of public-school teachers has dubbed themselves the Vaccine Hunters. They find and make appointments for elderly people who may not be tech-savvy enough to navigate the system on their own.

Four of the eight teachers speak Spanish, which has proved particularly useful. "The language barrier for the Latino community is heartbreaking. The sites are mostly in English, and if they do have that translation button into Spanish, it's still very much foreign to them," teacher Tanya Aquilara told WBAL-TV.

Facebook groups have sprung up for this purpose in communities across the country. Bethany Gladhill of St. Paul, MN, is in one with more than 100 members. They help seniors in the Twin Cities area get vaccinated by sharing information and strategies, and making appointments. “I don’t even have parents anymore,” she says. “I learned when they were ill that nothing gets done if someone doesn’t advocate for it. In the system we have now, this is really necessary.”

Churches, too, have become a way to reach marginalized groups -- and pastors are helping to build trust that the vaccines are safe. The state of New Jersey recently announced plans to use houses of worship and community centers as vaccination sites. With the help of two state representatives and the Florida Division of Emergency Management, a Baptist church in Orlando, FL, held a vaccination drive for more than 500 seniors. And in Oklahoma City, Ebenezer Baptist Church got permission from the state to create its own appointment system. It worked with other area churches to set up a phone bank, inviting people in the Black community to use the simple online portal. Then the church itself became a vaccine pod, where more than 1,000 people have received the vaccine.

Getting Vaccines Into Arms

Inoculating millions of people is an enormous undertaking, much more complex than a flu vaccine clinic. And not just anybody can give vaccines -- it requires training. In order to meet the demand, young and old health care providers are getting involved.

In late January, the Department of Health and Human Services amended the rules to allow recently retired nurses and doctors to give shots. Many have already answered the call. “It’s a historic moment,” retired nurse Judy Schneider told NBC News. “It’s public service. It’s a skill I can share.”

On the opposite end of the age spectrum, Laraib Khan expressed a similar sentiment. She’s a third-year student at Binghamton University School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in New York, and one of 125 BU immunization-certified students who are vaccinating people at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. “This pandemic hit all of us hard. As a student, I was overwhelmed with online classes, and not seeing friends,” she says. “If I get to help end the pandemic by administering vaccines, I really want to be part of that.”

Giving the shots is just one part of the work involved -- it also demands administration and organizational support. Team Rubicon, a volunteer group made up of retired military veterans, has sent teams to help at multiple locations in eight states. “They might show up and understand that what needs to be done today could be channeling traffic or could be observing people after their shot,” Art dela Cruz, Team Rubicon president and chief operating officer, told KOLD News. “In some cases, it might be something like running around and delivering lunches. All of those things are necessary to keep the machine moving.”

Jean-Jacques encourages efforts like this. “Even if you can’t actually put the shot in somebody’s arm, you can volunteer to help with organization or publicizing the availability -- there’s more you can do than just wait your turn,” she says.

Show Sources

Nature: “The lightning-fast quest for COVID vaccines -- and what it means for other diseases.”

CDC: “COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States,” “Vaccine Rollout Recommendations.”

Muriel Jean-Jacques, MD, associate vice chair for diversity, equity, and inclusion and assistant professor of medicine, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

WBAL-TV: “'Vaccine Hunters' assist older adults, Latino community find vaccine appointments.”

Bethany Gladhill, St. Paul, MN.

NJ.com: “COVID vaccines to be given out at some N.J. houses of worship, community centers, Murphy says.”

ClickOrlando.com: “500 seniors get COVID-19 shots at Orlando church vaccination drive.”

The Oklahoman: “COVID-19 vaccine pod held at a northeast OKC church was aimed at equitable distribution.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “HHS Amends PREP Act Declaration to Increase Workforce Authorized to Administer COVID-19 Vaccines.”

NBC News: “'It's public service': U.S. nurses are coming out of retirement to administer vaccines.”

Laraib Khan, Binghamton, NY.

Team Rubicon: “Forward Watch, January 22.”

KOLD: “Volunteers help vaccination sites run smoothly.”

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