Millions of poor, vulnerable individuals—from the urban homeless and public housing residents to migrant agricultural workers and those living in rural communities—lacked access to lifesaving vaccines, medical treatments, testing supplies and masks as the COVID-19 pandemic enveloped the nation.
Following a request from the Biden administration to address this health care disparity, staff from the Health Resources and Services Administration under the direction of Suma Nair launched a major initiative in 2021 that has provided community-based health centers with more than 20 million COVID-19 vaccines, 50,000 antiviral doses and critical medical supplies for communities in need.
“Suma demonstrated incredible leadership, creativity and persistence in making sure the most underserved and vulnerable populations in this country had equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines,” said Tonya Bowers, an HRSA deputy associate administrator.
In just two weeks, Nair and her team built an entire program, including an online platform to support communications and data reporting, that enabled clinics to order vaccines from the government’s central repository. The team prioritized allocations focused on equity and made sure the vaccines were delivered directly to the health centers.
They also created guidance and technical assistance to help health center leaders and staff on the safe handling and storage of the vaccine supplies, and best practices for administering the vaccines to patients and in their communities.
“There was a recognition that as the nation rolled out vaccines, if we didn’t also focus specifically on those who are most at risk, including people who are experiencing homelessness, agricultural workers, residents of public housing and individuals with limited English proficiency, they may not have access to those services,” said Jim Macrae, an HRSA associate administrator.
Within a month and a half of the program’s launch, the HRSA team was able to ensure the shipment of more than 723,000 COVID-19 vaccines to 225 health centers and 800 sites overall. By January 2022, the full array of some 1,400 eligible health centers had administered millions of vaccines to patients and staff, with 68% provided to underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.
Rachel Gonzales-Hanson, the interim CEO and President of the National Association of Community Health Centers, said many of the clinics in the early months of 2021 were not prioritized on the state allotment lists.
“These were the people who could not get access to the vaccines. She saved lives,” Gonzales-Hanson said.
Between Dec. 2021 and Jan. 2022, Nair also was tapped to rapidly distribute millions of at-home COVID-19 test kits, thousands of antiviral therapeutic medications and millions of N95 masks to health centers and rural health clinics.
Diana Espinosa, the HRSA deputy administrator, said the data-driven work that Nair had already been doing led to her success with the COVID-19 projects.
“Suma has this combination of being able to use data to drive program improvement as well as understanding health care systems and all the partnerships that are necessary to be successful,” Espinosa said. “In an environment of scarce resources, she has this uncanny ability to bring it all together in such an effective and collaborative way.”
Nair noted that her 15 years of experience working closely with health centers helped not only in managing the distribution of the vaccines and other pandemic-related medical supplies, but in navigating problems as they arose. “We know them and had this trust relationship built up,” Nair said.
Bowers said Nair “has been the point of the spear for ensuring that this administration could provide equitable access to all of the different products.”
“The rapid implementation and scaling of this complex, multifaceted national public health response required strategic planning and coordination across health care agencies at the local, state and national levels, including health centers, primary care associations, state immunization programs, national organizations and several federal agencies,” Bowers said.
For Nair, providing pandemic-related assistance was a way to make an impact and follow her life’s mission of helping underserved communities.
“It’s so hard with COVID right now and there are so many people on the front lines trying to relieve suffering,” she said. “This is a small way in which I can really help meet the mission of the health center program, focus on improving the health of underserved communities and on health equity, and follow my own personal mission to help people. The most important metric of success for me is first and always impact on those that we’re serving.”