Dikembe Mutombo has been known for blocking shots. After all, the 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center finished his basketball career as the second-leading shot blocker in NBA history. But the Covid-19 vaccine is one shot that Mutombo certainly didn’t want to block.

In fact, quite the opposite. Mutombo made it a point (pun intended) to get his first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. Why Morehouse? Well, the medical school has been awarded a $40 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to address how the Covid-19 pandemic was disproportionately affecting Black Americans and other communities of color in the U.S, as Curtis Bunn reported for NBC News last July. And as Mutombo explained, “Morehouse is one of the historically black colleges and universities. I wanted to make an example and encourage people of color to get the Covid-19 vaccine.”

Although the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out in U.S. has significantly improved since the end of January, surprise, surprise, disparities still remain in who’s been getting the vaccine. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) analysis found “a consistent pattern across states of Black and Hispanic people receiving smaller shares of vaccinations compared to their shares of cases and deaths and compared to their shares of the total population.” For example, in Georgia, even though Black residents make up 32% of the population and have accounted for 32% of the Covid-19 cases and 34% of the deaths, they have only received 24% of the Covid-19 vaccinations.

Part of the problem has been lack of access to vaccination. “In Georgia, there are more than 20 townships where there are no pharmacies,” said Mutombo. “ I could not believe that I was seeing this in America. It’s very sad.” He added, “we need to go out and put pharmacies in rural areas.” If you think that our country has become really advanced just because there is now an app that tells you whether its dark outside and ways to share absurd numbers of cat videos, think again. Simply visit some of the many marginalized is the U.S. to see how long a way our country has to go.

The other issue has been vaccine hesitancy. A RAND Corporation survey of 207 Black Americans, conducted from November to December of last year, revealed fairly high levels of vaccine hesitancy and mistrust of Covid-19 vaccines, with only 40% planning on getting vaccinated. Mistrust is not surprising. After all, when you’ve faces disadvantages and racism in your life, trust is not the first thing that comes to mind. Plus, science education has lagged in the U.S. “Education will help us eliminate health disparities,” emphasized Mutombo. “ The more people are educated, the more we have chances to save society.”

Mutombo talked about how he is frequently on the phone with other former basketball players where they are asking each other, “did you get tested? Have you gotten vaccinated? We need to encourage to everyone. What will be your contribution? What are you doing to encourage other people? Are you asking anyone you have come into contact with?”

Mutombo isn’t a Johnny-come-lately (or in this case not a Dikembe-come-lately) to addressing health inequities. Instead, it’s already been part of his mission for a while. “I created the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation because many in the Democratic Republic of the Congo didn’t have access to health care facilities.” Among the accomplishments of the Foundation has been to build the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital, which opened in December 2007 and has since treated over 500,000 patients. Mutombo spoke of many women not being able to get proper healthcare. “So many women are dying in silence,” said Mutombo. This clearly is not good. Women make up half the population, and unless you are a robot or a plant that grew out of the soil, you have to thank a woman for being born. Mutombo added, “We could see the end of civilization when are women are gone.”  

Mutombo also participated in an NBA Virtual Roundtable as part of NBA Fit Week on April 6 that focused on achieving health equity. Former NBA player Etan Thomas hosted the Roundtable, which included Celeste James, the Interim Vice President of Brand, Communications and Community Engagement at Kaiser Permanente in the Mid-Atlantic States and Leroy Sims, MD, MSc, NBA Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs as well. Here is a video of the Roundtable: 

During the discussion, James emphasized that “equity is not equality.” She defined equity as “looking at differences in people’s circumstances and needs and addressing those things. We can’t give them same solution to everybody, so we’ve got to be able to provide what’s meaningful to people and what they need in terms of their healthcare and access to those basic needs in their communities.”

After the Roundtable, James mentioned that “many people have different barriers, lots of barriers to care that we have to address.” To help different communities measure and address these barriers, Kaiser Permanente has rolled out a Covid-19 Vaccine Equity Toolkit. The Toolkit included different measures like the Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) and the Neighborhood Deprivation Index (NDI) to help various decision makers better understand the degree to which a given neighborhood may be facing barriers such as when people there lack adequate incomes, transportation, and reasonable housing.

The Toolkit also identified different ways for neighborhoods to ensure more Covid-19 vaccine equity and lumped these ways into four categories:

  • Physical/Infrastructure, which consisted of ways to place vaccination sites close enough to everyone and making transport to and from the sites available, especially for high-risk and disadvantaged populations.
  • Operations, which included staffing the sites with multi-lingual staff and interpreters, keeping the sites open long enough to allow everyone to find time to visit, incorporating reasonable registration systems, and attending to people’s social health needs.
  • Information/Education, which basically meant making key information readily available.
  • Cultural/Institutional/Others, which encompassed ways to engender more trust, helping people understand the value of vaccination, establishing key strategic partnerships, and making key investments in the community.

Additionally, the toolkit provided examples of various locations and organizations doing different things well. For example, the New Jersey Department of Health has been using of the Social Vulnerability Index and New York City has launched five vaccination sites open 24 hours a day, seven days a week across the five boroughs. Kaiser Permante has been partnering with community-based organizations and utilizing mobile vaccination units to bring vaccines to those who are harder-to-reach.

“Through these frameworks Kaiser Permanente wants to help with Covid-19 access,” said James. “We want to provide our own learnings to other health systems. How do we get the vaccine to people who have been hardest hit? What approaches can we take? How operationally are we set to handle the administration of these vaccines? How do we provide information and education? How do we make sure that we are communicating messages about safety? How do we begin to build trust in the health care system?”

Of course, equity issues are not new. Rather than creating many new problems, the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has simply further revealed many problems that already have long existed in the U.S. way before 2020. “We have a long way to go,” Mutombo said. “ There is huge inequality and division in America when it comes to the health care system.” Lest you think that this is just a problem for other people, picture Mutombo giving such an idea his famous finger wag:

Instead, “problems affecting one community will become the responsibility of everyone,” Mutombo emphasized. If enough marginalized communities and people of color do not get vaccinated, the Covid-19 coronavirus will continue to spread. And as long as the virus is actively circulating somewhere, it remains a threat to everyone.

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