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Plenary speaker: Forge community relationships to reduce COVID-19 disparities

October 10, 2021

Editor’s note: For more coverage of the 2021 AAP National Conference & Exhibition, visit For the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic, visit

Building strong community relationships is key to improving COVID-19 vaccine access and uptake, clinical health psychologist Michele P. Andrasik, Ph.D., said in Sunday’s plenary address.

Her advice comes as Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and have lower vaccination rates compared to White people.

Community engagement efforts are “critical to ensure that communities are well-informed, that you have community support and that you’re developing meaningful and reciprocal relationships and partnerships,” said Dr. Andrasik, director of social and behavioral sciences and community engagement for the HIV Vaccine Trials Network and the COVID-19 Prevention Network housed at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Disparities in cases, vaccination

Since the start of the pandemic, the percentages of Hispanic/Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) people diagnosed with COVID-19 have outpaced their proportion of the U.S. population, according to Dr. Andrasik’s review of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

People of color also have been hospitalized at higher rates than White people. The rates per 100,000 people are 1,305 for AI/AN, 1,045 for Black, 835 for Hispanic, 505 for White and 354 for Asian/Pacific Islander.

Data also show disparities in vaccination rates. Hispanic and Black communities’ share of the fully vaccinated U.S. population is less than their share of the total population.

Factors driving disparities

Dr. Andrasik said people of color often work and live in environments that put them at higher risk for contracting SARS-CoV-2 and for becoming seriously ill.

These groups often are overrepresented in essential service industries where they are exposed to the public and do not have health insurance and paid sick leave. They also are more likely to live in high-density housing, have poor access to healthy foods and have high levels of chronic stress and pre-existing conditions.

“What we see is that communities that are most impacted by COVID-19 have long-standing experiences of social and structural inequities that really serve to negatively impact health and well-being generally,” Dr. Andrasik said.

Taking action

To increase uptake of vaccines and therapeutics, Dr. Andrasik stressed engaging people of color early in the process and ensuring they have access.

“We really need to be able to provide appropriate funding to support diversity initiatives, to make sure we’re able to translate things into appropriate languages, making sure people have access to transportation or that the mobile units go to them and really to ensure a diverse research and provider workforce as well,” she said.

In March 2020, federal health officials asked her HIV Vaccine Trials Network to switch its focus to COVID-19 vaccines via the new COVID-19 Prevention Network. The network convened a panel of scientists with diverse expertise working with priority communities to guide vaccine manufacturers. The network also expanded partnerships with leaders of religious organizations and community groups to recruit participants.

About 47% of participants recruited at National Institutes of Health-funded vaccine trial sites were BIPOC, which Dr. Andrasik called “an incredible accomplishment and one that we’re very proud of.”

“It’s our longstanding partnerships with communities that allowed us to move the vaccines through the pipeline so quickly,” she said.

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