Coronavirus

Rochelle Walensky disappointed but not surprised with COVID-19 vaccine disparities

“I’d like to be in a better place."

Dr. Rochelle Walensky appeared on a panel as part of the 2021 Globe Summit to share her experience as director of the CDC during the COVID-19 pandemic. Erin Clark / The Boston Globe, File

COVID-19 case numbers have increased rapidly in the past month as the average daily number of deaths from the disease in the U.S. surpassed 2,000 just last week, The New York Times reported. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data Wednesday that showed the number of people in the U.S. receiving their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine had significantly decreased in recent days.

Health officials have continued to push for people to receive the vaccines in order to mitigate the spread of the virus and to protect them from the worst symptoms. According to the CDC, research found that unvaccinated people were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 opposed to those fully vaccinated.

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However, only 55.2% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated at this time, despite the widespread efforts of the Biden administration to distribute the vaccines.

Many who are unvaccinated are also those who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, such as those in Black and brown community and working class individuals who are unable to take time off to receive the vaccine. A report by the Department of Health and Human Services noted that approximately 44% of unvaccinated people may be willing to get vaccinated but do not have the means to do so or are slightly concerned about side effects, among other information.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, who has been spearheading the federal government’s COVID-19 response, is not surprised by this phenomenon and said she has seen it before with diseases such as HIV.

“I am disappointed, I’d like to be in a better place, but I’m not that surprised, and what I think that this lesson really does tell us is the power of community, because as you talk to people about their behaviors and about how they engage in health, how they access health, it’s the trusted messengers within communities,” Walensky said Friday at a panel during the 2021 Globe Summit.

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Walensky says that the second step after developing a vaccine is to engage behavioral scientists to understand and be able to implement them into the communities. She referred to HIV as a recent example, of there being science and research available but not being able to provide access and engagement to everyone in all communities.

Throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 has been heavily politicized, from mask-wearing to the administering of the vaccines, and has caused a large divide in the number of COVID-19 cases in states. Currently, red states such as Texas and Florida are among the hardest hit in the U.S. with COVID-19 deaths, and vaccine rates remain low in those areas as well.

“What has been disappointing to me is the divisiveness around the politics, rather than being particularly surprised that we would need to engage in a lot of behavioral health in order to get people to where we need them to be,” Walensky said.

Although those who are fully vaccinated have also contracted COVID-19 due to breakthrough cases, the vast majority of those who have received the vaccine have remained out of the hospital and avoided death. Upon CDC recommendations, the Biden administration plans to roll out booster shots to those more vulnerable to COVID-19.

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The CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recently recommended extending the booster shots only to older individuals and younger people who are at high risk. However, Walensky disagreed Friday morning, recommending that high risk workers, for example those working in health care, should also receive the shots.

The decision to overrule the agency advisory panel was met with praise from other health officials, including local physicians.

“The ACIP vote against boosters for people in high risk situations (i.e. HC workers) was a mistake. Dr. Walensky fixed it,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, in a tweet. “This is why it’s good to have a strong CDC Director.”

The clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Paul Sax, called the ACIP vote tone-deaf in a tweet, suggesting that Walensky’s decision may have been motivated by the front-line personal experiences that she had during her time at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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