For more than five decades, the nation’s community health centers (CHCs) have been a key part of broad scale immunization programs, and will play an essential role in COVID-19 vaccination efforts. In a new analysis, researchers from the Geiger Gibson/RCHN Community Health Foundation Research Collaborative estimate that nearly half of all patients served by community health centers qualify for phase one COVID-19 immunizations, following health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities and other essential workers, under priority guidelines established by the CDC.

The researchers found that among the 29.8 million people served by CHCs in 2019, an estimated 14.1 million adult health center patients – who account for 47 percent of all patients served – could be expected to qualify for phase one priority vaccination because their advanced age or underlying health conditions put them at greater risk of not only contracting the coronavirus, but also of severe illness with long-lasting consequences, or even death. These 14.1 million patients will require 28.2 million vaccine doses in order to protect them from COVID-19, according to the analysis. These findings are consistent with the important role that community health centers play in serving high-need rural and urban communities and populations at elevated risk.

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available and others become eligible, the entire community health center population, an estimated 29.8 million patients, would need nearly 60 million vaccine doses in order to protect them from COVID-19. Eighteen states would require at least one million doses to fully vaccinate health center patents; California health center patients alone will need more than 10 million doses.

Health centers are uniquely positioned to reach deeply impoverished, disproportionately minority populations that face elevated health risks for COVID-19. Community health centers are often a trusted source of primary health care in isolated rural or urban communities. Because of their deep roots in the community, health center clinicians are well positioned to address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy concerns in historically underserved populations that may not trust the medical establishment, the researchers said. In addition to the estimates, the authors summarize discussions held with Primary Care Association leadership representing 19 states and one U.S. territory to gain a greater understanding of health centers’ significant role in immunization.

Targeting the highest-risk people and communities for COVID-19 vaccines and ensuring that they are effectively reached is a national public health priority, making community health centers absolutely essential to a successful vaccine strategy, and funding support for health centers ever more crucial.

The data note was produced by the Geiger Gibson/RCHN Community Health Foundation Research Collaborative at Milken Institute SPH.

Read the data note, “Nearly Half of Community Health Center Patients – an Estimated 14.1 Million of 29.8 Million People Served – Qualify for Phase One COVID-19 Vaccinations Because They Fall within the CDC’s Highest Risk Categories”

Read the press release.