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Dialysis Centers An Efficient Option To Vaccinate Quickly And Reach Minority Groups


Two keys to meeting the Biden administration's new vaccination goals are finding more providers to give shots and reaching minority groups that have been hit hardest by COVID-19. Well, experts say dialysis centers are one elegant way to do both. Half of dialysis patients in the U.S. are Black or Latino, and often they have multiple conditions, like diabetes or hypertension, that make them much more likely to die if they get COVID-19. Yesterday, the Biden administration announced it would distribute vaccines directly to dialysis clinics, something only a handful of states did until now. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: A doctor told Frankie Shaw (ph) she had diabetes when she was only 22.

FRANKIE SHAW: So I kind of struggled with it, being kind of young, and not listening to what the doctor said, thinking, I have time. I got time to get it right.

NOGUCHI: Shaw's disease progressed. The medications took a toll.

SHAW: I actually had a stroke when I turned 35.

NOGUCHI: It left her with serious nerve pain. On top of that, diabetes drained her kidney. So Shaw, who is now 44, had to incorporate a punishing dialysis regimen into a retail manager's schedule.

SHAW: Trying to work four hours a day, get home, do a treatment. And then I got another maybe three hours, go home, do a treatment. So yeah, that's how my life, it became.

NOGUCHI: COVID-19 layered on additional fear. Friends died. But even older people, like her mother, couldn't find vaccines near where they live in Baton Rouge.

SHAW: She had a hard time getting the shot. Her primary care doctor couldn't get it. She'd go get her medicines at Walgreens. Walgreens wasn't getting it.

NOGUCHI: Shaw herself was one of the first to get the shots in January. That's because Louisiana is one of a handful of states that early on distributed vaccines through dialysis centers.

SHAW: If I wouldn't have gotten it so early and so fast through dialysis, I probably still would have been on a waiting list because of my age.

NOGUCHI: Vaccinating at dialysis centers, experts say, is an elegant solution. Joseph Vassalotti is chief medical officer for the National Kidney Foundation.

JOSEPH VASSALOTTI: If we can vaccinate the dialysis population, that would lead to health equity.

NOGUCHI: Yesterday, the White House responded to that call. It will distribute doses directly to dialysis centers as part of a broader effort to expand vaccination in high-risk communities. Brent Shealy expects to receive his first batch from the federal government early next week. He's president of Columbia Nephrology and says he's been arguing to vaccinate through his clinics for months. His network of clinics in central South Carolina serve about 2,000 dialysis patients, 65% of whom are Black and many of whom live in rural areas.

BRENT SHEALY: So it's really difficult to tell them, hey, just go get a vaccine because they may not know how to do it. They may not have the Internet capability to do it. They may not be able to drive to get it. And in a lot of rural areas of South Carolina, there is not a lot of options for places to go. So it makes complete sense to give the vaccines to the dialysis clinic.

NOGUCHI: It will also make a difference to people like Sandra Davis (ph). Davis is 76 and lives in East Orange, N.J., which hasn't been vaccinating through dialysis centers. She started dialysis six years ago after a car accident broke her pelvis and leg, immobilizing her for a while. She uses a walker and travels by bus to get to her treatments every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Vaccinators have come to the building where she lives, she says, but never when she's around.

SANDRA DAVIS: When they come, I'm on dialysis. I'm not here, so I can't have it.

NOGUCHI: It would make a huge difference, Davis says, if she could get it at the dialysis clinic that already vaccinates her against the flu every year.

DAVIS: I'd rather have it at the clinic that I go to because they know everything about me. I don't have to travel with all my business all over the place.

NOGUCHI: If she can just get the shot, she says, she feels confident she still has a lot of life left to live.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.