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Vaccine accessibility to underserved communities rests on individual states: Infectious disease physician

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Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers and Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, infectious disease physician, discuss vaccine rollout amid the pandemic.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Welcome back to Yahoo Finance Live. Turning now to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Biden administration has secured 200 million more vaccine doses, as there are still challenges in speeding up vaccinations. We're joined now by Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, infectious disease physician at Washington University School of Medicine and the John Cochrane VA Medical Center.

So, doctor, let's start on that point of the vaccinations. The Biden administration saying that there are still a lot of challenges going forward in the distribution. As you're seeing it, what remains some of the largest challenges in speeding up getting those vaccine doses into the arms of Americans?

MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: You know, I can speak to what we're seeing here in St. Louis. I sit on the board of health for the city of St. Louis. And it's been very hard to see certain areas in individual states procure vaccine product. So while it is very encouraging to hear that there is so much more vaccine coming in, it will really rest on the individual states to make sure that there is a very clear, transparent, and equitable rollout of those vaccines.

We are seeing in local jurisdictions and counties versus cities a lot of frustration with the sign-up process, with the ability to access these vaccines in marginalized populations, especially Black and Brown communities, who are already disproportionately affected. And so this increases the already quite wide mistrust that those communities have for both local government and the medical community, when there isn't a clear and equitable rollout.

KRISTIN MYERS: You know, I feel like that's a point that hasn't been talked about a lot. It was a huge fear, and then it almost seems as if people kind of forgot a little bit about that. What is going to be needed in order to get that vaccine rollout done quickly still, but far more equitably to those communities that have been underserved, at least when it comes to healthcare, and have unequal access to healthcare?

MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: I, for one, am tired of superficial platitudes. It's not enough to say you care about these communities, but to not have a very visible plan in place. Many of us in the public health sector have been calling for this since way before these vaccines came. So there was time to prepare. I really commend the Biden and Harris administration for making racial equity one of the four cornerstones of their administration. But now it's time to really back that up.

And nothing gets done-- nothing gets done without appropriate funding and policy to back it up. We have community partnerships, community leaders, trusted messengers in all of these local communities who have already earned the trust of these communities. Because let's be clear. You cannot manufacture that kind of trust overnight. We know that the vast majority of people in these communities have already said they wouldn't even take a vaccine if it was available.

And so we need that funding. President Biden has talked about taking funding from the Defense Production fund towards this vaccine effort. And that is needed with appropriate funding. States need clear guidance from the federal government. And that then needs to trickle down into local communities. But the community partnerships are here and ready to go. They have helped with the HIV crisis. They have helped with so many other public health issues that we've had. So those are the trusted messengers that we need to empower, in my mind.

KRISTIN MYERS: I want to turn now to reopening that we have. We have some loosening restrictions. I want to start first on schools, the CDC issuing new guidance. And there was suggestions of phasing in schools, but also using a color coding system about which schools can reopen and which ones can't. Is that the best way to go about it?

MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: At the end of the day, this needs to be a data driven process. Not all schools are in areas that, unfortunately, are prepared to open. We still need to be looking at what is happening with the numbers on the ground. And we still need to be aware that not all school districts have the same availability of resources at the end of the day. The same schools that were struggling before the pandemic will be in even worse trouble if they don't have the type of support to open safely.

You know, those people, like myself, quite frankly, who live in neighborhoods and aren't privileged enough to have access to schools that have that type of support, that have those types of resources, have done phenomenally well. We listened to, here in St. Louis, some data being rolled out all the way from elementary schools that have been open for the last couple of months, all the way up to secondary and tertiary education institutions. And the numbers are very, very reassuring. But what's obvious is that those are places that have the resources available. So that's what needs to be looked at, is that, again, equity is there around how these schools can open safely.

KRISTIN MYERS: I want to turn now to another reopening that's happening here in New York. They're going to be reopening indoor dining for restaurants, which makes me a little bit uneasy, especially as we have all of these viruses and mutations out there. Is that the right call to make right now, to allow indoor dining to go forward?

MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, I sound like a broken record. From here, what I've seen that's been successful is that counties, cities, jurisdictions that have paid attention to the data, to what the case positivity rate is in their individual cities, are then able to make an informed decision about how they can open safely.

Doing so prematurely will continue to set us back and make it difficult for us to get through this. It's very clear. It's very clear that even globally, areas that paid attention to the case positivity rate and kept things shut down when they needed to have done enormously well and have been able to maintain some freedom, even after they opened, because they did so at the right time. If New York is at that point, absolutely.

Listen, no one understands more than I do, having family members who are small business owners myself, how difficult this has been economically. But at the end of the day, if we do this prematurely, we're going to be in a whole host of trouble. Now there's a lot of ways to support businesses if you're in a place where that case positivity rate does support opening. And clearly, listening to the guidelines still. Masking has to be in place. Social distancing has to be in place. In winter, it's challenging to have outdoor dining. So that has to be thought about as well. So all of these things need to be taken into account.

KRISTIN MYERS: Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo-- excuse me-- Davis from Washington University School of Medicine--

MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: Oh, you're doing great. You nailed it.

KRISTIN MYERS: I was making sure I have to get people's names correct.

MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: Listen--

KRISTIN MYERS: From Washington University School of--

MATI HLATSHWAYO DAVIS: --as a person whose name literally gets butchers all the time, you nailed it. I appreciate it.

KRISTIN MYERS: Thank you so much for joining us. Happy Friday to you.