Nearly half of all patients that Community Health Centers serve qualify for Phase One COVID-19 immunizations under priority guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to a new report. The analysis by researchers at the Geiger Gibson/RCHN Community Health Foundation Research Collaborative at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) found that an estimated 14.1 million adult health center patients – who account for 47 percent of all patients served by health centers – could be expected to qualify for Phase One priority vaccination because their advanced age or underlying health conditions put them at higher risk.
Health centers are positioned to play a major role in ensuring the COVID-19 vaccine reaches high-risk, underserved and prioritized populations and the CDC identifies them as essential partners in a national vaccination strategy. Health centers serve urban, rural, and frontier communities that otherwise face significant barriers to care, which is particularly problematic for vaccines requiring two different clinical visits. Protecting health center workers on the front lines is also a vital concern as 22,751 health center staff have already been infected by the virus. Assuming health centers provide two dose vaccines to all health center staff, their 30 million patients, and many additional community residents, preliminary estimates of vaccinations and related costs are at least $2.73 billion.
NACHC Chief Medical Officer Ron Yee, MD, noted that a number of challenges lie ahead for health centers as they prepare to assist in administering the COVID-19 vaccine (and are already working on the front lines to distribute the influenza vaccine to prevent a “twindemic” in medically underserved communities). In addition to the logistical hurdles of distribution, storage, training, and supply needs for health centers and their staff (including protective gear), health centers will also need to leverage Community Health Workers and other non-clinical staff for outreach and education about the COVID vaccine.
“We know that many of our patient populations have skepticism about government vaccination programs — and, certainly, a COVID-19 vaccine will be no exception,” said Dr. Yee. “We are preparing now. We must develop culturally responsible messaging for patients, providers, and care teams around the following key issues for the COVID-19 vaccine: safety, access, quality, cost, and timeliness. The other challenge is that the COVID-19 vaccine will require two doses to be effective and require in-person visits at a time when many patients have been staying at home and avoiding preventive care services.”
The financial toll of the pandemic has hit health centers hard. In addition to the ongoing need for stable, multi-year funding for health centers and related programs, health centers have experienced substantial revenue losses due to closures and social distancing measures, while also shouldering the additional costs of purchasing protective gear and supplies, investing in telehealth and virtual technology, and restructuring their facilities to keep patients and staff safe. After accounting for estimated vaccine-related costs, the total financial impact on health centers through June 2021 is estimated to be as much as $13.5 billion. Congress has yet to pass another emergency funding bill and health centers still lack a secure and sustained funding path. Despite these challenges, health centers have conducted 6 million tests and have helped divert non-acute COVID cases from overwhelmed hospitals grappling with another surge of the virus across the nation. And, as always, they stand ready to do even more to improve the health of our nation.
Established in 1971, the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) serves as the national voice for America’s Health Centers and as an advocate for health care access for the medically underserved and uninsured.