Opinion

Use Vaccine Distribution Sites to Prevent Additional Deaths of Despair

America is going through a crisis of despair. Before the pandemic, one in 12 Americans had symptoms of depression. Today, it’s nearly one in four. We can talk all we want about the second wave of COVID, but the real second wave is that of unmet mental health needs in our country.

We need a solution and we need it now. A proposal: Let’s use Point of Dispensing sites to provide both vaccination services and mental health services to the masses.

By co-locating mental health professionals (or community health workers with mental health training) at vaccine PODs to conduct screenings, triage individuals based on need and provide immediate support and services, we have a unique opportunity to prioritize mental health and prevent additional loss of life. Studies have projected that more lives could be lost to suicide and/or the misuse of drugs and alcohol due in part to the isolation, economic hardship, fear, uncertainty and changes in patterns to daily life this year has brought us.

We must make this happen. We have a moral obligation to extend a helping hand to our communities. And we have a legal obligation, too. As one of the 15 core components of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness grants, recovery efforts must include the identification of mental health needs and a plan for connecting people with the necessary associated supports and services.

To do that, we must first augment existing POD plans to ensure the appropriate personnel and resources to address mental health needs are available to those presenting at mass vaccination sites. Then, we must equip the hospital systems and community clinics included in mass vaccination plans with the appropriate staff and resources to provide mental health services.

Both will require additional dedicated funding and coordinated training efforts to achieve maximum benefit, and because immunization rollout will likely occur in a tiered manner to specific populations based on risk categories – there is already a discussion at the national level about initial priority being given to those in greatest need – there is also an opportunity to tailor services based on the potential needs of the population presenting.

Though a strong infrastructure exists to co-locate these services, the public health system alone does not have the capacity or sufficient number of personnel with the capability/training to provide the mental health support necessary. We’re seeing this now because it typically takes a disaster or disease outbreak like COVID-19 for the benefit of a strong public health system to become apparent. Indeed, COVID-19 has exposed vulnerabilities within a public health system that has been woefully underfunded, and that has underscored the need for dedicated resources and well-developed protocols and practices for preparedness planning, surveillance, testing, outreach/education, and, when available, immunizations and treatment to prevent transmission and mitigate disease impact.

As most Americans will seek vaccination to protect themselves from COVID-19, we must not miss this key opportunity to address the larger spectrum of health needs created by the virus at this critical juncture. By leveraging existing resources and structures in place for the delivery of mass vaccination, providing mental health services along with the immunization visit is a cost-effect approach for reaching millions of Americans. Integrating these services has the potential to improve a multitude of short- and long-term health outcomes, and will prevent future disability, death, and costs related to unaddressed mental illness and substance use disorders.

The public health system has always been the linchpin in the provision of immunization and disaster response and recovery services. And given the distinct recovery needs in the wake of COVID-19, all public health touch points must be leveraged to help combat the ongoing mental health and addiction epidemic within the pandemic.

Dr. Benjamin F. Miller is the chief strategy officer for Well Being Trust and an advisory board member of Inseparable, two of the nation’s leading mental health organizations. Laura Blanke is the senior policy associate for Well Being Trust.

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