By Divya Mohan Little, program officer for Polk Bros. Foundation
If there is one topic that dominates all conversations these days, it is vaccines. Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe? Who gets it first? Should I get it now or should I wait? Where can I get it? How can I trust it will protect me? The public health community has been thinking seriously about these questions and specifically the concept of trust since before the first vaccine was even approved for distribution. We knew the supply challenges were only the beginning of the uphill battle to achieve what is called herd immunity, having enough citizens vaccinated that we stop the spread and continued devastation of this pandemic. Particularly, we struggled with how to address justifiable distrust and fear of vaccines in communities that have experienced undeniable and devastating health inequities.
A diverse group of stakeholders from the public, nonprofit, philanthropic, healthcare, and education sectors has come together to build the Vaccine Corps Partnership (VCP), a space for open communication and collective problem-solving and planning. Deep authentic partnerships are needed in order to cultivate the trust essential to heal and thrive. The VCP involves community-led planning to build a network of trusted messengers, people with relevant lived expertise who can dispel myths, educate residents about the value and safety of the vaccine, and ultimately help people access the vaccine. Through this partnership, we can demonstrate the value of community leaders playing an essential role in improving health equity long-term.
To date, sixteen local and national funders have committed $3 million to support the work necessary to build this infrastructure and capacity in communities. The initial funding raised and managed by the Health First Collaborative, a collective impact model incubated and hosted at the Michael Reese Health Trust, has been used to support community-led efforts with capacity support including project management and administration, evaluation, and advocacy expertise. The focus ahead will be on identifying and funding community programs to train trusted messengers and to resource hyper-local campaigns. While many of these activities will have further implications, the bulk of the work needs to happen this spring.
The VCP is in the process of building a training academy to convey knowledge and develop skills crucial for trusted messengers. Addressing structural barriers such as scheduling and access to technology will be paramount with a strong emphasis on navigation and de-mystifying the process concerns that many Chicagoans have.
We are aligning activities with the Chicago and Cook County Departments of Public Health to ensure that our coordinated efforts are culturally-competent and community-centered and respond to the urgency of the moment. The VCP also builds upon census outreach and contact tracing initiatives in the last year to build a workforce that will last long past this current crisis. If there is a faint silver lining to the past year, it is the opportunity to build skills and elevate community leaders who have had well-meaning interventions aimed at them instead of developed with them.
We invite our philanthropy peers to learn more about this effort and consider joining. By working together, we can leverage the work and infrastructure of the VCP to build a stronger and healthier Chicagoland, eliminate inequities in healthcare, and amplify the voice of the people who have been disenfranchised for too long.