Whether it’s politics, religion, libertarianism, safety concerns, or general mistrust of government, drug companies or the health care establishment, the reluctance of Americans to get a COVID-19 vaccine threatens our ability to achieve herd immunity, put the pandemic behind us and return to normalcy.
With nearly 580,000 American lives lost to COVID, including more than 52,000 in New York, all of us have a responsibility to protect ourselves, families and others from yet another wave of the virus and its variants that could bring more deaths and hospitalizations, while also derailing our economic recovery.
Despite the backlash from anti-vaxxers who continue to disseminate misinformation, we need to be as aggressive as possible in educating the public that getting the vaccine is the only sure way of stopping this pandemic.
It’s particularly troubling that people of color who are at highest risk of contracting and dying from the virus are lagging behind. There are plenty of theories about the reasons for vaccine hesitancy, but when it comes to race, there’s more work to be done in overcoming safety concerns and an underlying mistrust of public health programs, much of it rooted in the ethically abusive Tuskegee, Alabama study involving African American men with untreated syphilis.
Of the nearly 9.7 million New Yorkers who have received at least one dose of a vaccine, only 11.2% are African Americans, even though they represent 17.3% of the state’s eligible population. The gap within Latino communities is smaller: Hispanics represent 16.2% of those vaccinated in New York, compared to 18% of those eligible.
On Long Island, African Americans account for 10.7% of the population over age 15, yet they represent only 6.8% of those who have received at least one dose. By comparison, nearly 82% of Long Islanders who have received at least one dose are white — about the same percentage of the eligible white population.
To reach high-risk communities, health equity task forces were established in Nassau and Suffolk counties, bringing together human service organizations, health care providers, clergy and other leaders. Distribution sites have been set up in churches, community centers, colleges and other locations near areas hardest hit by the pandemic. Yet, in many communities of color throughout Long Island, less than one-third of residents have been vaccinated.
While demand for the vaccine has slowed throughout the country, 46% of the population has received at least one dose — or roughly 153 million people. Among Americans age 65 and older, more than 71% are fully vaccinated. The FDA’s authorization this week of the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 will also help younger families get their lives back in order. Still, we have a long way to go to achieve herd immunity, which experts say would require roughly 80% of adults to be fully vaccinated. That’s a tall order with polls showing that 30% of adults are unwilling to get it.
With an abundant vaccine supply, easy access and no appointments necessary, I implore all those who are still wavering to believe in the science and take responsibility for keeping yourselves — and your loved ones — healthy. We must do everything possible to avoid a repeat of the horrors, isolation and economic fallout we’ve endured over the past 14 months.
Michael J. Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care provider in New York State.