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Every six seconds, a new COVID-19 case is reported in California. Every minute, two more lives are lost. Across our nation, the death toll continues to climb beyond 400,000, leaving millions of Americans grieving for their loved ones.

In medicine, we are taught that, before examining a patient, we must first learn their story. In doing so with our patients, we have witnessed the unrelenting strain the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our communities. Instead of being “the great equalizer,” as some first called it, COVID-19 has magnified the inequities afflicting Black, Indigenous and Latino communities.

Fortunately, we have a silver bullet: vaccines.

However, vaccinations can’t save lives and end the pandemic effectively unless a broad segment of the population receives them. More than 17 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been shipped across the country, enough to inoculate 5% of the population. But less than 30% of those have been administered. There are several reasons for the slow vaccine roll-out. But one of the most significant barriers is the one we didn’t really expect: vaccine hesitancy, which is skepticism of vaccines caused by misinformation or fear.

How we react to vaccine hesitancy in the next few weeks will matter immensely.

 

As hospitals fill, vaccine hesitancy continues to cripple our vaccine distribution efforts. Latinos in California account for over half of our state’s COVID-19 cases and over 45% of the deaths. Still, nearly 43% of Latino adults surveyed expressed disinterest in the vaccine, much higher than the 35% of white Californians.

Healthcare workers who were granted top-priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine are declining it even though we had assumed they all would want it. Recent surveys have shown that frontline workers’ skepticism toward COVID-19 vaccinations is now comparable to the population at large, with approximately 20% to 40% of Los Angeles county’s healthcare workforce declining the vaccine.

“By empowering people to speak with their neighbors and by educating them on vaccine safety and effectiveness, we can combat vaccine misinformation and transform false news into truth.”

Building trust and providing information about vaccines is critical to mitigating gaps in vaccination acceptance. Numerous community organizations have taken it upon themselves to organize town halls and information sessions to educate the public and address concerns about the vaccine, but they cannot accomplish this alone. We need a strategic plan that will amplify the voices of community leaders and increase their visibility on the frontlines of vaccine education.

By empowering people to speak with their neighbors and by educating them on vaccine safety and effectiveness, we can combat vaccine misinformation and transform false news into truth. Familiar voices are easier to understand and more difficult to ignore, further underscoring the nation’s shortage of a culturally competent physician workforce.

This is why we are calling for a unified nationwide task force to address vaccine hesitancy and build a cohesive mechanism that incorporates variations in health literacy, socioeconomic status and cultural backgrounds. In alignment with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this task force will also work on mitigating health inequities and addressing historical and ongoing racism.

With more than 4,000 COVID-19 deaths per day in the U.S., these barriers can no longer be ignored. It will require consistent engagement with both community and faith-based leaders, along with the allocation of more resources. However, the economic benefits of widespread COVID-19 vaccine adoption would be orders of magnitude higher. The value in lives saved and avoidance of long-term adverse health effects alone would be immeasurable.

We must put every bit of energy, funding and determination into vaccinating as many people as possible as quickly as possible, especially in communities of color. Failure to accomplish these goals will bring harm to us all. The future of our country is at stake.

Dr. Daniel Turner-Lloveras is an assistant professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Violeta Osegueda is a fourth-year medical student at University of California, Irvine School of Medicine.

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