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New Initiative By Health Insurers Aims To Help Vaccinate 2 Million Vulnerable Seniors

The country's rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is picking up speed, with a third new vaccine ramping up production and an accelerated timeline promising enough supply for every American adult by the end of May. Still, the process of finding and booking appointments remains difficult for many eligible individuals.

Now, a new initiative by more than a dozen health insurance providers is aiming to promote health equity by making it easier for seniors from underserved populations to get vaccinated.

Andy Slavitt, senior adviser on the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said at a regular Wednesday briefing that the pilot program will help 2 million of the country's most vulnerable seniors overcome three commonly-cited challenges: questions about the vaccine, scheduling and transportation.

"This commitment came from organizations who have the call centers, technology and community relationships to run a pilot program like this, and it comes on the heels of our call to action last week to the private sector to use their talents and resources to help bring a quicker end to this crisis," Slavitt said.

Through the "Vaccine Community Connectors" pilot, Slavitt said, providers will contact unvaccinated Americans over the age of 65 who live in areas of "high social vulnerability" to talk about the efficacy, safety and value of vaccines. They will also facilitate registration and appointment scheduling, arrange transportation to and from sites and ensure individuals return for their second shot. Slavitt added they are looking to deploy mobile vans in certain communities.

In a press release announcing the initiative, members of the trade groups America's Health Insurance Plans and Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association said providers will use enrollee data, analytics and government resources to help identify vulnerable communities and tailor their outreach to them.

For example, they said, some communities will be best served by mobile clinics or language assistance, while others will benefit most from free transportation provided by ride-sharing services.

"Improving health equity means setting important goals, removing barriers to better care, and meeting people where they are," said Tonya Adams, national spokesperson for the Vaccine Community Connectors program and chief customer experience officer at Regence BlueCross BlueShield.

The U.S. is racing to vaccinate its population in the face of a number of newly emerging coronavirus variants, and as several states have moved to roll back mask mandates and other public health directives.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned at Wednesday's briefing — as she has since late last week — that recent progress in slowing the pandemic appears to be stalling. The most recent seven-day average of new cases stands at 66,000, an increase of 3.5% over the previous seven days. And the most recent seven-day average of deaths increased 2.2% over that period to slightly more than 2,000 deaths a day.

She urged Americans to continue masking up, observing social distancing and avoiding gatherings, measures she said would determine the course of the virus in the "pivotal" months before the country can be vaccinated en masse.

Some 15.6% of the U.S. population has had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to an NPR tracker.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.