Digital and economic divides hamper COVID-19 vaccination rate

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The clock is ticking on President Biden’s ambitious plan to have 70% of adult Americans receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the Fourth of July. At the current vaccination rate, with only 63% of adults inoculated with their first shot as of June 3, Biden is likely to miss the target. Even with a slew of incentives designed to encourage people to get the jab — including $1,000,000 lotteries, raffles for hunting rifles and shotguns, gift cards and free beer — the rate of new adults getting the vaccine has slowed dramatically.

There are many reasons why the pace of daily vaccinations has been lagging recently. Some people are hesitant to get the shot or outright refuse it. Others are contending with language barriers or work and family obligations. Still others face accessibility issues that fall along digital and economic fault lines, similar to disparities in access to health care in general.

According to a CNN analysis, in U.S. counties that have fallen behind in vaccinations, an average of 35% more households do not have access to the internet, and 39% more households do not have access to a computer.

For someone who doesn’t have internet access, there’s not much choice there in being able to go online and schedule and appointment.Dr. Richard Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Foundation

The digital divide is one of the root causes of the vaccine availability disparity. The wealth gap is another. The median household income is about 20% less in counties that have fully vaccinated a smaller share of their population versus counties that have vaccinated a larger share. Additionally, a county’s vaccination coverage jumps an average of three percentage points for every $10,000 more in median household income.

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To meet these challenges, the Biden administration is continuing to use public and private-sector partnerships to make vaccines more widely available. Early childhood centers such as KinderCare, Learning Care Group, Bright Horizons and more than 500 YMCAs are providing free childcare coverage so people can more easily make and keep vaccine appointments. The government is also partnering with Black-owned barbershops and beauty salons to provide communities with vaccine education and doses. Pharmacies are extending their hours for the month of June, and employers are running on-site vaccinations clinics.

There are also efforts by corporate America to bridge the digital divide and speed up vaccine access. AT&T is committing $2 billion to expand affordable broadband access through low-cost offers and the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program run by the FCC. Microsoft is expanding its Airband program to provide inexpensive broadband to eight cities to address racial and digital inequalities.

The reality is industry and government will need to work even more closely together to reverse the current downward trend in the vaccination rate. That concerted effort will be key if Biden expects — or even comes close — to reaching his goal.