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Meeting the Challenge of Vaccine Equity

Public health experts say vaccine equity is a must to end the coronavirus pandemic. What is vaccine equity and how do we achieve it? Dr. Beth Weitensteiner is here to talk about the barriers that communities of color face in accessing the COVID-19 vaccines and what we can do to close the gap.
Meeting the Challenge of Vaccine Equity
Featured Speaker:
Beth Weitensteiner, DO, FAWM, FAAFP
Dr. Beth Weitensteiner is an advocate for high quality health care for all. In addition to being a clinician at the ICHS Holly Park Medical & Dental Clinic and serving on Swedish medical staff, she has helped guide the ARNP residency program through certification and expansion as its deputy director.

Learn more about Dr. Beth Weitensteiner
Meeting the Challenge of Vaccine Equity

Caitlin Whyte (Host): Public health experts say vaccine equity is a must to end the Coronavirus pandemic. What is vaccine equity and how do we achieve it? Dr. Beth Weitensteiner is here to talk about the barriers that communities of color face in accessing the COVID-19 vaccines and what we can do to close the gap. She is the Medical Director for International Community Health Services.

Welcome to the Together We Rise wellness podcast from International Community Health Services. I'm Caitlin Whyte. All right, Doctor today, we're talking all about vaccines and I'd love to start with something called vaccine equity. What is that? And why is it so important?

Beth Weitensteiner, DO, FAWM, FAAFP (Guest): So vaccine equity is just simply having fair and equal access to vaccines for every member of the population. And regardless of their socioeconomic standing, we want to make sure that everybody has access to both healthcare and vaccines. And the importance of it is that in a pandemic, and when we have viruses affecting a global population; the more people that are vaccinated contributes to the health of the globe. And so that makes it incumbent upon us to make sure vaccines are accessible to every member of society.

Host: And ICHS serves a diverse patient population; 85% are people of color and over 80% are low income. So what barriers do your patients face regarding vaccine access?

Dr. Weitensteiner: So our patient population, because of the, the cultural diversity, the language diversity, we have to make sure that information is made available to them in their native languages. We have to make sure that we do not have technology inequities. Many of our patients do not have access to being able to understand English texts, English narratives, access to technology to sign up for a vaccine off of a mobile platform, when it's not in their language. So we have to make sure that our outreach to those patients is at their level and meet them in their language where their technology base is.

And so we rely heavily on our incredible staff who make phone calls, do things the old fashioned way, talk to the community, get outside of the four walls of our clinics and engage the patients and let them know the information that's out there, help to educate and validate the information that they're receiving. So they're not concerned about what does this mean? What do I need to do? Where do I get this? So it's an incredible challenge that the organization International Community Health Services has met, in an incredible fashion, just with the willingness to meet people where they are, and to get that information out to them.

Host: You mentioned a few ways already, but how has ICHS worked around these challenges?

Dr. Weitensteiner: So we have multiple interpreters. We have multiple staff who speak various languages. And so they're on the phone. We have a community outreach team that goes out specifically to the community's, community centers, engaging the patients and engaging the community members, and not just ICHS patients to make sure that they're aware of the health concerns for both the pandemic, what resources were available to them. We have flyers that go out in their written languages. We had just started at the turn of the pandemic. We had just changed to a new electronic health system, which allowed us to send bulk emails to patients who had access to that technology and had set up the, having us being able to send an email to them and updating them on the availability of both vaccines or testing or other services that ICHS was offering at that time.

So we try to exploit what technology we have, but our patients are always on the the negative side in terms of having to navigate a system that really isn't built to facilitate that. So we do all we can to, to meet their language and their cultural needs, the old fashioned way face-to-face or phone calls.

Host: Oh, wonderful. I'd love to hear that. Now COVID-19 booster shots have been shown to be effective against the Omicron variant. So how has the focus shifted from distributing boosters to underserved communities in particular?

Dr. Weitensteiner: ICHS was incredible. We have an incredible staff who did a brilliant job in distributing the first set of vaccines. And once you start that initial outreach, you engender a trust with your patients. And we distributed over 33,000 vaccines in four months to both ICHS patients and non ICHS patients. We opened it to the public. We did that through again, outreach by phone, word of mouth, people know the clinic and they would call into the clinic and say, what can we do?

And so we set up these mass vaccine sites for the original vaccines. And once you do that, the trust and the willingness and the time that we took to educate patients, the kindness that our staff shows in just navigating the patients through signing a consent form, understanding some of the potential side effects of the vaccine, getting the vaccine, what the follow-up looks like, hanging out for 15 minutes. All of that creates an atmosphere of trust in and willingness to continue the conversation as changes and the fluidity of changes that involved COVID and then Omicron. And so when we talk about booster shots now we're talking at it from an element of a relationship that is already been started with the vaccine and being able to say yes, these are the folks I went to at first, and these are the folks that were responsive to my needs, answered my questions.

And so now, as we're trying to explain what the booster is about, what its import is, they at least understand that, that our perspective and our goal is for their health, for their family's health. And, and to try to control this pandemic on a local level and that all transmits and has the domino effect to a kind of a global curb to controlling this virus. So, so I think it comes back down to engendering the trust and not taking that trust for granted.

Host: Well, that last point brings me to my last question here. You know, locally, obviously ICHS has been making great efforts toward vaccine equity, but what considerations do you take as a healthcare provider in terms of vaccine equity on that global level?

Dr. Weitensteiner: What's I think it's important. You can be overwhelmed as an individual about that, the global conditions for, for COVID and each individual, it is not one person who is going to solve or render this virus inconsequential. It is going to be with us. And so it is incumbent that we, we take care of our, our local network. From a federal perspective, we reach out to you know politicians, we engaged our colleagues. I have colleagues in Kenya and by the time I was getting my booster shot, their communities were just starting to get their initial vaccines. So we can see that there is still a global inequity. So taking the time to get involved and just engage with the people, you know, and try to do something. Don't just be overwhelmed and do nothing.

And whether that means supporting global outreach through the WHO, whether that means, you know, speaking to your politician again, but just being willing to engage. And we have incredible opportunities at ICHS because our families are multi-generational. Our families are so culturally diverse and come from all around the globe, that they have relatives all around the globe. And so what we do and the education we provide here locally actually does get transmitted around the globe. And so that can empower the communities where they live to make sure that, hey, is that vaccine available to us. I heard that this vaccine was available and I know my family member got it in Seattle.

So I'm going to go try to get it here. So, so you really, we are a small world and our interconnectedness is just amazing sometimes at how, how globally small we are. So anything you can do matters.

Host: Well such important information Doctor, especially as we begin to hear more about those additional booster doses. Thank you for joining us today. Check out our website, for more information, and remember to subscribe and share this show with your loved ones. And thanks for listening. This has been the Together We Rise wellness podcast from International Community Health Services. I'm Caitlin Whyte. Be well.