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Hartford HealthCare Vice President of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Sarah Lewis knows 2021 will be challenging, but she’s hopeful, too. In February, MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Sarah about vaccine dissemination from both an equity and a healthcare organization viewpoint.

NAN PRICE: You relocated from the New York area. What drew you to this opportunity here in the Hartford Region?

SARAH LEWIS: We moved in June 2019, about eight months before the COVID-19 pandemic really hit. We absolutely moved for the opportunity. I got to know the healthcare system during my time at the Greater New York Hospital Association. I recognized Hartford HealthCare’s vision for health equity and greater engagement of the community. And, I appreciated how the organization truly understands health disparities and the way they manifest in their patient population. I was encouraged by opportunity to build a department dedicated to this vision, that would build upon the successes the system had made prior to my arrival.

Hartford HealthCare’s values, mission, and leadership behaviors are expected of all colleagues. That’s what gives us access to incorporate equity and inclusion and belonging in what we do every day. And, at a regional level, the organization can also easily pivot and address the region’s needs.

NAN: You mentioned pivoting. The pandemic has obviously impacted the organization’s role in the region.

SARAH: It’s astonishing that we’ve been in this pandemic for almost a year and we’ve already administered millions of vaccines against it. That is a feat of human achievement—just thinking about the advanced scientific knowledge required to create the vaccine and the ability for various scientists and physicians to leverage research that’s been going on for more than a decade around mRNA vaccines and vaccinations, around other coronaviruses, and the immunology that led to this development.

So, scientists had a platform with the mRNA research they could plug this new coronavirus into and start testing. Clinical trials started at the end of March 2020. That’s phenomenal.

NAN: It’s very advanced.

SARAH: It gives me hope. It’s truly international and cross-organizational interdisciplinary types of partnerships that have gotten us to this point where there is hope. That said, we’re dealing with a crisis of so much magnitude. When I think about the amount of grieving we have or haven’t been able to do as a country and as a society, I think it’s important to make space for that grief and for all of us to have the chance to understand the trauma of going through this prolonged experience.

As a healthcare community, we’ve rallied in some incredible ways. My colleagues on the frontlines every single day taking care of patients have endured more than I can articulate—and they keep showing up and learning on the job. The efforts they’ve demonstrated have been heroic. I’m glad they’re getting these vaccines, so they can feel safer showing up to work every day.

NAN: Tell us about vaccine dissemination from an equity lens.

SARAH: The crisis we’re all living with is rather catastrophic for many of our Black, Latinx, indigenous, and Asian populations. Preexisting disparities and inequities have led people to be doubly vulnerable. From a health perspective, there’s vulnerability caused by the way people’s lives structured. For example, relying on public transportation as opposed to using private transportation, living with a lot of other family members, or living in low-quality housing.

There’s also vulnerability for those with more service-oriented jobs or jobs that require interaction with other people and can’t be done from home. Those are the jobs in this economy that are most threatened by the pandemic. Service-oriented jobs are also the ones where we see the most layoffs. So, you’re either getting sick on the job or more likely to get sick on the job, or you’re more likely to not have a job at all, which creates its own sorts of vulnerability and threats.

We’ve been trying to understand that data—both from what we get from the state and the federal government and then internally within our own system—and building up those data analytics capabilities. The goal is to chart what we’ve seen about our patient populations over the year and, going forward, understand how to target in terms of future interventions not just for COVID-19, but for other disease categories as well.

NAN: What role does Hartford HealthCare play in vaccine dissemination?

SARAH: We’re very cognizant of the role we have to play in helping people understand what these vaccines are, what they’re not, and how that relates to where we’re trying to go as far as this pandemic is concerned, with all of the loss, illness, and isolation it’s caused.

Our role is to help people understand the vaccines are trustworthy tools. I understand some people’s uncertainly and I understand there’s hesitancy—which can come from vigilance, not from people not understanding a vaccine could be good, but just understanding there are multiple forces at play.

As I mentioned earlier, these vaccines didn’t exist a year ago, so people question how they can possibly be safe. We reinforce that this technology has been under development for years. Scientists have been understanding this particular vaccine platform over the course of multiple years of trial and error. These vaccines are safe and effective. (Note: At the time of the interview, only the two mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna had been approved. Johnson & Johnson, a different vaccine platform, was approved after the interview took place.)

We all have to be responsible for taking care of our own bodies. I understand when Black folks in my family and Black friends of mine say they’re not sure because the government doesn’t always have our best interests at heart. They’ve seen the way Black lives aren’t always valued. They want some reassurance that this isn’t one of those times when Black lives are devalued for the betterment of the state or some other agenda, but it’s actually when we’re trying to save lives.

As a healthcare system, the role we’ve had to play in public health education has never been more important. I’m so thrilled there are so many physicians who are beautifully gifted at talking about what we’re going through right now. We see them all over the news—and I love seeing people like that emerge as leaders because they’ve seen the full spectrum and then they can articulate it to us. So, I hope their voices keep getting lifted up throughout this process because the public health part of healthcare is just as important as the needle in the arm, so to speak. We need one another to succeed.

NAN: What’s next?

SARAH: It’s another hard year. I’m extremely grateful we have leaders in Washington, D.C. who take this pandemic seriously and have our best interests at heart when it comes to ending this in a safe, equitable, and humane manner. I can’t predict the future. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. I do know that, as long as vaccines are available and they’re safe and effective, we’ll do everything we can to continue disseminating and distributing the vaccines.

Each day, we’re working toward things being better than “normal.” “Normal” got us here, to the place where these systemic inequities or disparities ran rampant. We want to be better than that. We know we can’t go back there. That means transforming care continually. It means listening to our communities and understanding what they need from us. It means putting their words into our stories and it means continuing to show up to make equity more of a reality every day in the way healthcare is delivered in this state.

What’s great is, we have some incredible colleagues across our system who are dedicated to that. So, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful for more hugs this year. My one goal going into this year was: I just want to hug somebody I didn’t get to hug in 2020. And I think I’m going to be able to do it! I think a lot of other people will be able to do that, too. We’ve got to remain vigilant and we’re going get there.

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