The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said last week it would apply $350 million in unused monies from the COVID-19 Provider Relief Fund to launch a new initiative aimed at increasing COVID-19 vaccinations in underserved communities.
HHS said in a Nov. 22 statement that the six-week campaign, dubbed the Expanding COVID-19 Vaccination Initiative, would give the funds directly to community health centers supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to spend on programs to encourage underserviced patients and seniors to get updated COVID vaccines, including mobile, drive-up, walk-up, and community-based events.
HHS said it would encourage the health centers to increase vaccine access by extending their hours of operation, outreach, and off-site vaccination sites and to also use the funds to expand transportation, translation, education, and interpretation services.
“We have seen COVID infections increase in prior winters, and it does not have to be that way this year,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in the statement. “We now have updated COVID-19 vaccines to protect communities against the Omicron strain. Our message is simple: Don’t wait. Get an updated COVID-19 vaccine this fall. It’s safe and effective.”
HHS said all HRSA-funded health centers, as well as health center “look-alikes” that received American Rescue Plan funding, are eligible to receive the funds.
As part of the initiative, the agency said it would work with community-based organizations including those that provide childcare, early childhood development, housing, food, employment, education, and older adult, or behavioral health services.
“As community-based organizations that have built deep relationships with their patients and neighborhoods, health centers are uniquely positioned to increase COVID-19 vaccinations,” HRSA Administrator Carole Johnson said in the statement.
HHS said the effort targets the unique access barriers experienced by underserved patients but is also expected to increase rates of flu and childhood vaccinations through combined vaccination events.
According to HHS, health centers have administered more than 22 million vaccines in underserved communities to date, with 70 percent of those patients being racial and ethnic minorities.
The National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) praised the government initiative in a Nov. 22 news release.
“Health centers have been on the front lines of COVID-19 for nearly three years, vaccinating hard-to-reach populations at pop-up sites, community events, on agricultural fields, schools, or churches, wherever there is a need,” said Rachel Gonzales-Hanson, NACHC’s interim president and CEO. “This funding will be essential for health centers to continue their work and protect communities against another spread of the virus this winter.”
However, House Republican leaders questioned the source of the vaccination initiative’s funding.
“We are extremely concerned that, after the Biden administration stonewalled Congress for months about the remaining Provider Relief Fund dollars, it just announced $475 million of it will be used for a vaccine campaign,” House Energy & Commerce Committee Republican Leader Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Republican Leader Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said in a joint statement Nov. 22. “As Democrats have already spent more than a billion dollars on vaccine confidence activity, with no reporting on the success of its outcomes, we believe continuing these efforts is not the best use of these funds.”
They added, “These funds were intended for doctors, nurses and frontline health care workers, who have been experiencing record burnout, and should instead be used to mitigate inflation and address the workforce shortages driven by Democrat policymaking.”
The $475 million that the lawmakers cited is the entire amount the Biden administration is spending on the six-week campaign to urge Americans to get vaccinated. In addition to the $350 million going to the health centers, the campaign includes:
- $125 million to get more older Americans and people with disabilities vaccinated, including through accessible vaccination clinics, in-home vaccinations, transportation, outreach, and education
- national television ads
- mobile sites in rural and remote areas
- pop-up vaccine clinics and educational booths at major community gatherings.