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During the first weeks of November, Washington state reported several record-breaking days of new COVID cases — averaging more than 1,500 cases a day. At the same time, we’re hearing encouraging news about vaccine trials and effectiveness.

As the coronavirus pandemic evolved this year, a disturbing pattern emerged: The people most likely to both catch the virus and die from it come from communities that have the greatest barriers to health care. With COVID spiking in rural and immigrant communities, we need to ensure that the people hit hardest by the disease have early access to a vaccine when it becomes available.

As health care providers working on the front lines, we know that an organized and equitable distribution of a vaccine is the first step to getting COVID under control. Low-income communities, people of color, and people experiencing homelessness are more likely to be at risk of catching COVID because they frequently work essential jobs that leave them more vulnerable to exposure and live in situations where they share life essentials such as clothing, food and shelter. In Washington, Hispanics have accounted for 34% of known COVID cases despite being only 13% of the total population. We can only slow the spread of the disease when all people — regardless of their income — are protected from catching and spreading the disease.

In Yakima, this starts with making community health centers a key piece in vaccine distribution. Community health centers provide health care to people even if they do not have insurance. Half of all Yakima Valley residents get care from a community health center, and in the more rural parts of the county, community health centers are often the only health care option.

When the virus first struck in March, our health centers changed how we work to serve as “shock absorbers” and keep patients from overwhelming hospitals. Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic performed more than 12,000 COVID tests in Yakima County, and Yakima Neighborhood Health Services performed over 2,600 tests. We can build on these relationships to distribute the vaccine.

Community health centers also provide in-language services to patients who speak English as a second language, meaning we are poised to overcome the barriers that could keep vulnerable populations from getting vaccinated. Over 126,000 community health center patients in Washington are migrant farm workers — a population of essential workers that has both been hit hard by COVID and often lacks access to health insurance.

While we still have a way to go with this pandemic, the Washington State Department of Health recently announced an initial plan for distributing the COVID-19 vaccine when we have one. In the meantime, we’re seeing a spike in cases and must remain vigilant through the winter. It’s imperative that people continue to wear masks and wash their hands until a vaccine is widely available.

The coronavirus does not discriminate. We can’t keep COVID under control if people without insurance and people of color are unable to access the vaccine. Community health centers have the experience and relationships to make sure that Yakima gets vaccinated. We can fight this disease and will recover faster if the state Department of Health works to ensure the vaccine is distributed in an equitable way.

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