Vaccine equity panel highlights need for local persuasion in Kansas communities

Ximena Garcia, special adviser to the governor for COVID-19 vaccination equity, is leading a task force discussion to address disparities in race and ethnicity. (March 10, 2021, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Members of a newly formed Kansas COVID-19 vaccine equity panel say misinformation and distrust are among the most pressing factors creating racial and ethnic disparities among those who have been vaccinated.

About 35% of all Kansans have received at least one dose of the vaccine with 1,617,994 total doses administered. However, the discrepancies between white and non-white Kansans are significant.

The race and ethnicity is not known for everybody who has received a vaccine, and some individuals reported two or more races. But available data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment shows 28.7% of white residents have received the vaccine, compared to 28.1% of Asian residents, 21.4% of the Latino population, 17.9% of Black residents and 9.7% of American Indians in Kansas.

Many members of the COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Taskforce, which met via video conference for the first time Wednesday, said the lack of trust in the vaccines, the governor and KDHE is a major barrier to increasing vaccination numbers in these under-vaccinated communities.

“I think messaging from all of us is important and understanding the community, understanding that we all are here, and it’s not just doctors,” said Kelly Sommers, of the Kansas State Nurses Association. “I trust everyone right now, but it’s going to take a group like this to really earn trust more than the other individuals that we have been relying on to pass the information along.”

Stakeholders from across the state and health care organizations joined the discussion to identify potential courses of action to address these disparities. The taskforce is led by Ximena Garcia, special adviser to the governor for COVID-19 vaccination equity, with assistance from Marci Nielsen, chief adviser to the governor for COVID-19 coordination.

According to a state vaccine survey, the biggest deterrents to vaccination right now are fear of side effects, feeling that there is not enough evidence backing the vaccine or concerns about the speed of clinical trials. On the other hand, primary reasons for getting vaccinated were to ensure familial or personal health and wanting to return to a normal lifestyle.

The data from that survey indicated a need to focus on those who are on the fence, Nielsen said.

“We drill down into the data, and what we’ve learned is we need to focus on what’s called the movable middle,” Nielsen said. “We need to hone our message carefully so that we are being both cost-efficient but also … so that we are able to move very quickly to ensure that folks who have hesitancy are getting vaccinated.”

The taskforce is split into four areas of focus to achieve equitable vaccine distribution throughout Kansas — engagement, equity guidance, data monitoring and long-term public health infrastructure.

The panel is tasked with providing monthly updates to the governor and KDHE regarding distribution efforts to vulnerable communities, providing input toward on-the-ground efforts and serving as liaisons to local communities.

Addressing the taskforce at the beginning of the meeting, Gov. Laura Kelly pointed to work being done across Kansas already to address some equity issues. For example, Wyandotte County’s own health equity taskforce used data to locate vulnerable populations and made efforts to expand access to testing and vaccinations in those areas.

“Achieving vaccination equity is a lofty challenge, but as a group, you bring superior professional and life experience to this discussion,” Kelly said. “We must ensure that every Kansan is vaccinated. That’s how we get back to work, back to school, back to normal.”

KDHE on Wednesday reported 14 new deaths from COVID-19 had been recorded since Monday, along with 601 new cases.

Broderick Crawford, of the NBC Community Development Corporation in Wyandotte County, said it was important that engagement comes from community figures who live in the area because much of the distrust is toward outside sources.

Nicole Garner, public health project director for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County, said the government has found great success using faith-based organizations to reach vulnerable communities in the Kansas City, Kansas, area and beyond.

“We have to develop champions for those communities,” said the Rev. Tony Carter, of the Salem Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas. “The people that they have distrust from, that’s not who they’re going to want to hear from. They want to hear from individuals that they have established relationships with and established trust with to walk through that.”