Opinion: Everyone benefits when vaccinations are widespread
By Paul D. Witman, Jim Prior and Chris Njunge
Just over two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and well into the biggest surge, we find humanity both amazingly fortunate and still at significant risk. Vaccines, in many forms, from many sources, are generally safe and remarkably effective at reducing infection and transmission and minimizing illness.
Yet, we still have enormous numbers of people unvaccinated. In the United States, that reportedly contributes to the strain on our health care system, along with the tragedy of sometimes more than 2,500 deaths per day.
We rightly prioritized delivery of vaccines to health care workers, older and at-risk patients, and essential workers — often lower-paid and from marginalized communities. But many of those people remain unvaccinated, for reasons including a mistrust of government triggered by programs that used communities of color for medical testing.
Data on the delivery of vaccines worldwide is critical to understanding how to move from a pandemic to something we can more easily manage, to let us get “back to normal.”
We learned early on that there were inequities in that delivery process. Inequities come in many forms. Early deliveries in the U.S. were plagued by short supplies of vaccines, and technology skills, persistence and access were required to get one of the limited number of appointments.
Some people need to hear from people they trust — not just a government report — that the vaccine is safe. Others lack transportation or language skills to access a vaccine site or are concerned about perceived cost. Some health care agencies didn’t get needed additional vaccines delivered because it appeared, due to system design issues, that they hadn’t used their prior shipments.
In the U.S., vaccine supply is no longer an issue, and the remaining problems are solvable. In other parts of the world, though, access to vaccine products is still an issue. While vast swaths of the populations of wealthy countries like the U.S. have been vaccinated, poorer countries lag far behind. The most highly vaccinated countries have more than 90% of their populations fully vaccinated, while at least 40 countries are at rates of 10% or lower.
Even with the apparently less dangerous omicron variant, we still see a large number of daily deaths in the U.S., and it is reasonable to believe those numbers are proportionately at least as bad in poorer countries. It also is likely that we don’t have good data from poorer countries, so infection, illness and death rates are much higher than reported. Low vaccination rates, wherever they occur, are contributing to vastly higher rates of infection and serious illness.
“No one is safe until everyone is safe,” say many epidemiologists, noting that more variants will continue to evolve in unvaccinated populations. Failing to encourage and support vaccination worldwide will enable continuing viral evolution, possibly evading even our current immunity from vaccines and earlier viral variants.
Wealthier countries have bought advance vaccine deliveries to the detriment of poorer countries. Other elements of the supply chain matter too — vaccines must be kept cold and syringes, sanitizers, rubber gloves and secure disposal of the vaccine containers are needed. All supply chain elements and an equitable distribution model that fits each locale’s needs are critical to vaccine program success — and to the health of the whole world.
From a human equity viewpoint, it is imperative for wealthier countries to find ways to support greater vaccination rates in developing countries. Enabling manufacturing of vaccines and all the other supplies needed in other parts of the world is one big step. We must support the prioritized delivery of vaccines in all countries to health workers, first responders, essential workers, and the elderly and ill.
To put this pandemic behind us, it needs to be behind all of us, not just wealthy countries. We need to support worldwide organizations in enabling and encouraging vaccinations all around the globe, doing so in an equitable fashion that provides the greatest access to the most vulnerable. We look forward to seeing more from our national and global leadership to bring this outcome to life.
• Paul D. Witman is an information technology management professor, Chris Njunge is an assistant professor of organizational leadership and Jim Prior is an adjunct instructor at California Lutheran University.