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For the latest COVID-19 information, visit vcuhealth.org/covid-19 or Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU for pediatrics. For vaccine details, visit vcuhealth.org/covidvaccine.

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Ensuring equitable access to health care throughout the COVID-19 pandemic … and beyond

VCU Health's Office of Health Equity works to ensure all communities have access to the care they need.

Kimberly Battle vaccinates her father, Phillip Battle, at the VCU Health Hub at 25th Dr. Kimberly Battle vaccinates her father, Phillip Battle, at the VCU Health Hub at 25th. (Photo: Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing)

When the COVID-19 vaccines became available, the goal was to get as many individuals vaccinated as possible. However, certain barriers quickly became apparent — particularly among people of color.

VCU Health's Office of Health Equity works to ensure all communities have access to the care they need during COVID-19, including the vaccine. According to Byron Hunter, VCU Health director of community health initiatives, this effort was in place even before the pandemic took hold.

Byron Hunter“We opened our Health Hub at 25th about two years ago. There are four of the city's six public housing communities in this area, and it's a largely African-American population. Many individuals have low incomes. So, it's been a focal area for the city, as well as for our health system,” he states.

This wellness center is a site that provides care coordination, navigation and connection to social and health resources. Several of VCU Health’s academic units and health system programs work out of this space to provide access to services for community members free of charge.

Addressing barriers to care

Despite the availability of vaccines and other health services, many individuals throughout the community were still hesitant—or unable—to partake in them. Common barriers to care include medical and vaccine mistrust, limited vaccine knowledge and reduced overall access to care, such as transportation/mobility and lack of technology.

In response, VCU Health took immediate action.

“When the vaccine program rolled out, we began working with several of our community partners and community members to help streamline the process and make it easy for individuals to set up their appointments. We did reminder calls to individuals. We assisted individuals with transportation. We've provided health education resources to answer questions and really help community members make informed decisions about vaccines,” Hunter explains. “Our goal was to remove the barriers so they could come in, receive it, and feel comfortable about their decisions and choices.”

Thanks to all of these efforts to increase confidence and vaccine uptake among community members, many “early adopters” have now received their vaccines. Even as more vaccine sites have become available — and thus increased access — Hunter ensures that the Health Hub continues to operate with its open-door policy.

“We sort of hand-hold people through the process of scheduling, getting transportation, actually getting to the facility and getting back home, so there is really no barrier for people to come in and receive their vaccines with us. We have a very coordinated approach.”

A cohesive, collaborative mission to improve health

As an academic medical institution, VCU Health’s mission focuses on patient care, education and research. Its programs, community partners and infrastructure help the health system mobilize very quickly — which has been of utmost importance throughout the pandemic. VCU also works diligently with faculty, staff and students to ensure they understand barriers and challenges faced by community members.

“We're very research focused. And we’re always thinking about all of our opportunities to be innovative … applying for grants and really getting individuals involved in health equity. And, thinking about how we can get many of our people involved in clinical trials is really important,” Hunter notes. “So, it's really a systematic approach for us. When all of those systems interact together, then we are really able to drive behavior change and improve health outcomes.”

Continuing the effort

Much has changed within VCU Health since Hunter arrived nearly four years ago. The health system has expanded its campuses to include New Kent. The children’s hospital is also expanding.

“As we think about doing additional outreach work and community benefit work, we have to account for those additional campuses. So, my scope of work grows. My team grows. Our impact overall grows. That enables us to do really good work to support our local community and the other communities we serve as a health system,” Hunter notes.

For an in-depth conversation on this topic with Byron Hunter, VCU Health director of community health initiatives, listen to this podcast.

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