Opinion: Let pharmacists keep giving vaccines

FILE - This Thursday, March 18, 2021 file photo shows syringes filled with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a pop up site in the Queens borough of New York.  According to results released on Monday, March 29, 2021, The U.S government’s first look at the real-world use of COVID-19 vaccines found their effectiveness was nearly as robust as it was in controlled studies. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
FILE - This Thursday, March 18, 2021 file photo shows syringes filled with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a pop up site in the Queens borough of New York. According to results released on Monday, March 29, 2021, The U.S government’s first look at the real-world use of COVID-19 vaccines found their effectiveness was nearly as robust as it was in controlled studies. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Credit: Mary Altaffer

Credit: Mary Altaffer

Legislators are currently considering Senate Bill 46 which would allow Georgia pharmacists to administer the COVID-19 vaccine beyond the state health emergency and allow them to administer all other FDA-approved vaccines.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Georgia’s Black communities since it began a year ago. Unfortunately, we continue seeing the disparities as immunization rates for Black Americans lag behind other races amid the abysmal vaccine rollout in Georgia. While COVID-19 has killed about 1 out of every 800 Black Americans, Georgia struggles to get vaccines to Black communities. We need the Georgia legislature to act now and increase access to COVID-19 vaccines in underserved areas by allowing pharmacists to administer all U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved vaccines.

Georgia has remained among the worst states in terms of getting the COVID-19 vaccine to those who need it. The rollout of the vaccine has been riddled with complications, confusion, and delays, resulting in only about 12 percent of the Georgia population having been vaccinated. And when we look at who is getting the vaccine, the numbers are even worse for Black residents.

Of the nearly 4 million doses delivered, only about 22 percent of vaccines have gone to Black Georgians, despite making up a third of Georgia’s population. While part of the lag in immunizations can be blamed on supply, the fact is, Black communities are being left out and current disbursement strategies lead to gaps in vaccine access while deepening the mistrust Black Georgians have regarding the COVID vaccine.

In order to improve Georgia’s COVID-19 vaccination rates and help fight current health disparities impacting Black residents, Georgia needs to increase access to vaccines by allowing pharmacists to administer all FDA-approved vaccines and to make a concerted effort to engender trust among the Black community.

Georgia legislators are currently considering Senate Bill 46 which would allow Georgia pharmacists to administer the COVID-19 vaccine beyond the state health emergency and allow them to administer all other FDA-approved vaccines. Allowing pharmacists to administer recommended vaccines can drastically increase access to immunizations for underserved communities in both rural and urban parts of our state.

AME Bishop Reginald T. Jackson
AME Bishop Reginald T. Jackson

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Nearly 90 percent of Americans live within five miles of a community pharmacy, and in underserved areas, Georgia patients are more likely to have access to a pharmacy than other healthcare providers. The AME 6th Episcopal District for which I am the presiding prelate is headquartered in Fulton County, zip code 30303. In this area alone, there are 11 pharmacies that could administer vaccines to the community.

Furthermore, a February NPR study showed that in Georgia and other Southern states that most COVID-19 vaccination sites are in whiter neighborhoods. Expanding vaccination capabilities to include pharmacies is a logical step that increases opportunities to get the vaccine to minority communities.

Beyond the current pandemic, it’s vital that Georgia pharmacists can provide FDA-approved immunizations as the Black community continues facing disparate health outcomes and less access to care. Pharmacists offer more flexible hours and more convenient access for patients to receive immunizations against vaccine-preventable illnesses like the flu, hepatitis, or tetanus. In the last five years, more than 6 million Georgians have received vaccines from their local pharmacy – proving that pharmacists play a key role in increasing immunization rates, reducing overall health care costs, and saving lives.

In addition to making the COVID-19 vaccine more accessible, Georgia leaders need to engender trust in the Black community to foster greater vaccine uptake. Kaiser Family Foundation data has shown that Black Americans are hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, with 43 percent preferring to “wait and see” and 21 percent saying they do not plan to get the vaccine. In order to counteract this hesitancy, we need Black churches and leaders to have a voice at the table and to spread the word about the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Churches in Georgia are uniquely positioned to help in the fight against COVID-19. Not only are pastors trusted messengers who can provide key information to their congregations, but many churches already offer public health resources to their congregations, which could be expanded to support COVID-19 immunization efforts. If Georgia leaders are serious about getting the vaccine to those disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, they would drive a sense of urgency and include Black faith and community leaders in plans for vaccine distribution.

According to a study in PLOS Medicine, Black Americans confront daily stress so harsh it physically changes bodies, causing Blacks to age quicker, have more chronic illness, become sicker and die younger than nearly any other U.S. demographic group. Because Black Americans are 37 percent more likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans, we must improve Georgia’s immunization rates among Black residents.

In order to do so, the legislature needs to pass SB 46 to allow pharmacists to administer all FDA-approved vaccines and our faith communities must be included in efforts to increase trust in the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.

Bishop Reginald Jackson is presiding prelate of the 6th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) , which encompasses more than 500 churches in Georgia.

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