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[COMMENTARY] Rebuild Right: COVID Vaccine Roll Out Shines Light on Failures

Yes, we have no system here.

Reports of problems and chaos associated with the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. are not surprising.

Close up of a mature man taking a vaccine in his doctor’s office

In Cook County, Illinois, for instance, the government debuted an online registration system and changed the survey within hours, after thousands had already signed up for vaccine information.

In Florida, many elderly residents lined up overnight for a vaccine, prompting some to wonder if the queue itself was a super spreader event.  

At nearly every critical juncture during the pandemic, policymakers and pundits have touted the strengths of existing systems to deliver supplies, care, and now, vaccines. 

And at almost every turn, the notion of a coordinated, resourced, accessible system of care has proven elusive, if not just inexistent. These critical errors of assumption have likely worsened the pandemic; more than 350,000 people have died in America because of COVID-19. 

We keep trying to build a house without a foundation. 

This is surprising to me and to many in my profession. As a social worker for more than 30 years, I have seen generations of my colleagues provide patch after patch to people needing the basics such as healthcare, housing, transportation, and access to other shared, public resources.  

During the pandemic, social workers have been lauded for their efforts of working with people, within systems to ensure that basic needs are attended to, reducing the public healthcare burden. 

Numbering more than 600,000, social workers are the professionals who serve people wherever they are. Social workers practice in healthcare, education, behavioral health, government, disaster relief, criminal justice, politics, community settings, and more.  

Social workers stretch and prod social service providers and programs to ensure efficacy and utilization. Still, even the best social worker cannot replace a broken, under-attended system of social care, especially during a pandemic. 

Nationally, many continue to operate as if there is a reliable and coherent network to tap into for distributing the vaccine. Nothing could be farther from reality. 

We are all dependent on a dizzying array of eligibility requirements and beneficiary rules that flummox even the wealthiest.

We are also still largely dependent on our zip codes for access to care, even in times of a global health crisis. We must address the gaps in trust associated with healthcare in general, and vaccines in specific. 

Building trust is the professional duty of social workers.  

There are many who say that improving foundational systems of care is socialism. These arguments are false, in part because they are inconsistently applied or used to raise public fear. 

As a nation, institutions and individuals regularly give routine aid to some members of society without questioning the costs or benefits. But it is not advisable to continue meeting the needs of some over the needs of others. 

The pandemic has laid bare the essential connections between us all. When the grocery store clerk or delivery person catches a cold, chances are their coworkers, customers and all of their family members could catch colds –or COVID.

Investment is necessary now in a system of care that is an investment in each American individually. Social workers understand this connection between systems and individuals. 

Policymakers, administrators, and officials need to make complex and difficult decisions in the weeks and years ahead to solve the crises wrought by the pandemic. This may be alarming for some. 

The rationing of care, for example, has garnered attention lately. But social workers have always operated with constraints. 

It is time to build connections; in order to rebuild a system of service and care that relies on social workers and other professionals to do their jobs. 

It is time to build a system that addresses the stark cracks in our society made visible by the pandemic. It is possible and needs to start now. 

Tracey Mabrey is an Associate Professor of Social Work at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. 



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