Opinion

Older Americans’ Confidence in Vaccines Is Growing, but Challenges Remain

The coming weeks and months likely will be brutal in the trajectory of a disease that to date has proven relentless and unforgiving — especially to our older family members, friends, and neighbors. Recent vaccine news gives us hope and the speed at which it has been developed is impressive. But we must now turn to vaccine distribution and adoption — prioritizing the most high-risk populations, funding education and awareness programs, and reaching out to minority and underserved communities to end this pandemic as quickly as possible.

The following vaccine distribution and adoption recommendations will help ensure vaccine deployment can best serve and be received by the nation’s seniors and other high-risk populations:

Vaccinate Seniors after Health Care Workers and Nursing Home Residents and Staff

Recently, a federal advisory panel recommended that health care workers and residents and staffs of nursing homes would be prioritized for the first wave of vaccine, Phase 1a. This is the right call given the heroic efforts of our front-line workers in battling the virus and its devastating effect on those in nursing homes. As the panel considers distribution from there, they must prioritize our nation’s seniors living in the community next.

Eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths reported in the United States have been among adults ages 65 and older. To reduce hospitalizations and deaths, we must make the vaccine available to the senior population as soon as possible. In a recent Tivity Health survey of more than 3,700 members of its SilverSneakers program, 85 percent of those surveyed said they would be willing to get the vaccine, but only 39 percent believe they will have quick and easy access. The federal advisory panel must act now to instill confidence in our senior population that the vaccine will be available to them in the first few months of 2021.

Prioritize Vaccination Distribution Channels That Seniors Trust

A key component of ensuring availability and adoption by older adults will be offering the vaccine through trusted distribution channels. In our survey, seniors indicated they were most comfortable getting the vaccine from a primary care provider, pharmacy or clinic. Federal health officials and public and private sector decision makers must double-down on working with existing health care delivery partners to ensure the highest-possible vaccination rates among older Americans.

Execute National Education and Awareness Campaigns to Dispel Misinformation and Mistrust

To achieve widespread adoption of the vaccine, especially among seniors, funding must be set aside for education and awareness campaigns to dispel myths, combat fraud and support vaccine distribution. Our survey respondents cited potential side effects as the main concern that may dissuade them from taking the vaccine. And 6 in 10 seniors believe health care providers will charge them for vaccinations, despite new federal requirements that COVID-19 vaccines are to be covered under Medicare with no cost-sharing.

Federal and state health agencies have vast experience in effective public health campaigns to address concerns like these. However, it will take an influx of dollars to quickly mobilize education and awareness programs as COVID vaccines are authorized for use. Whether through a supplemental appropriation to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by diverting existing budgets set aside for other purposes, or through public-private partnerships, we must ensure that adequate funding is available to provide accurate and timely information to our seniors.

Develop Vaccine Deployment Strategies to Reach Underserved and Minority Communities

Federal and state efforts to support vaccine distribution must also specifically address minority and underserved communities. COVID has disproportionately impacted minorities of all ages, including older adults. Black and Latino populations are already more likely to lack access to care, may suffer from multiple comorbidities and are more likely to live in geographically underserved areas. In addition, they may lack trust in the scientific and medical community and therefore will question whether the vaccine is safe.  Federal and state authorities must coordinate closely with trusted health and community partners that these vulnerable populations. Health inequity was a significant concern before the pandemic, it has worsened during the pandemic. We must not allow health disparities to increase further with the vaccine. The CDC should provide a roadmap to state governments to support them in developing a plan to drive vaccine adoption in these minority groups.

The Challenge Ahead

Tivity Health’s survey confirms that battling misinformation will remain one of the biggest challenges in the ongoing war against COVID — along with confronting the most daunting logistical challenges in the history of modern medicine. Government agencies, research institutions, health care providers and others involved in vaccine mobilization and monitoring must be transparent in the work ahead. Maintaining patient trust in the process means leveling with Americans if clinical problems arise.

Vaccine development — led with unprecedented speed by pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer, and supported by countless physicians, scientists and patients in clinical trials — represents groundbreaking innovation. Now, federal and state authorities must lock arms with the entire health care industry to ensure a smooth and rapid deployment.

Richard Ashworth is president and CEO of Tivity Health, a public company dedicated to improving health outcomes for older Americans through fitness, social engagement and nutrition solutions.

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