Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology chaired by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) held a hearing on methods to increase COVID-19 vaccine uptake. Dr. Philip Huang, MD, MPH; NACCHO Board Member; Director and Health Authority, Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services was featured as a witness in the hearing. Other witnesses included Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, MD, MPH, Professor in Vaccinology and Director, Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health, University of Maryland School of Medicine; Keith Reed, MPH, CPH, Deputy Commissioner, Oklahoma State Department of Health; and Dr. Alison Buttenheim, PhD, MBA, Scientific Director, Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics. NACCHO sent out a press release highlighting Dr. Huang’s testimony.
Dr. Huang began his testimony—speaking from an area of dual crises in Dallas, TX—by noting how integral and important the expertise of local health departments is to emergency response efforts. Dr. Huang highlighted that local health officials know their neighborhoods, block by block, maintain ties with their local communities, and have experience identifying the barriers and assets to health care. Speaking from his knowledge as a NACCHO board member, Dr. Huang emphasized the important role local health departments played in mobilizing state and federal partners prior to the first case of coronavirus in the United States. Later in his testimony, Dr. Huang went on to acknowledge the key activities that local health departments are currently providing as part of the COVID-19 response, such as testing, contact tracing, and mass vaccination campaigns. Throughout his testimony, Dr. Huang emphasized the importance of equitable vaccine distribution, highlighting Dallas County’s use of a vulnerability index in order to prioritize high risk communities.
Throughout the committee hearing, members on the panel, joined by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, noted the increasingly worrisome trend of vaccine hesitancy in rural communities and communities of color. Dr. Huang remarked that in Dallas, officials are seeing hesitancy in Black and Latino communities, creating registrations to be skewed to the northern, higher income areas of Dallas County. Dr. Huang pointed to historic and present discrimination in health care, in combination with the digital and resource divide,as a reason for this. To increase confidence and registrations, Dr. Huang stressed the importance of leveraging respected community leaders.
Those testifying also raised concerns surrounding public health messaging, particularly around the anticipated Johnson&Johnson vaccine. The health officials highlighted the importance of framing vaccines as equally effective at preventing severe consequences, in order to avoid members of the public prioritizing one vaccine over another. During the question-and-answer portion of the hearing, Dr. Buttenheim noted that the “best vaccine is the one you are getting tomorrow.” Members on the panel similarly voiced other concerns, such as digital literacy;immigrant communities’ fear of providing data to government entities; the importance of tracking vaccinations; as well raising investments in research, technology, and public health. NACCHO has continuously advocated for federal public health funding before and throughout the global pandemic.