Realizing a society free of vaccine-preventable diseases

The pandemic underscored the incredible power of vaccination.

March marked the second anniversary of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly a million people in the U.S. have died. For all of us, normal routines were disrupted, and important routine preventive health care was put on hold.

But, as the pandemic trajectory and response have begun to evolve, it has brought to life a looming threat. Between January 2020 and July 2021, more than 37.1 million adult and adolescent vaccines, recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), were missed, according to an Avalere Health insurance claims analysis, commissioned by GSK.[1]

How did this happen? During the pandemic, the U.S. responded to the immediate impact of COVID-19, but unintentionally let its guard down on other vaccine-preventable diseases, which without attention, have the potential to put our society at risk for preventable illnesses and outbreaks. Bearing the greatest risk from low vaccination rates are older adults[2], as well as underserved racial and ethnic communities.[3] These groups have also been disproportionally impacted by COVID-19.

We are at an inflection point now and have a rapidly closing window to recalibrate. The pandemic underscored the incredible power of vaccination and has given us the opportunity to remind Americans that it is not just COVID-19 that vaccines protect against, but also shingles, hepatitis and many, many others preventable diseases. Vaccines don’t save lives, vaccinations do.

The time is now. Americans are more attuned than ever to conversations around the risks associated with forgoing the protection of these shots. The pandemic has shown us that we can turn the tide on low vaccination rates when industry, legislators, public health officials, health advocates, the medical community and local trusted voices work together. The numbers tell the story; three quarters of all adults are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, including nearly 90 percent of people 65 and older.[4] This is unprecedented for any adult vaccine.

And so, as a company that prides itself on delivering more than two million vaccine doses per day to people living in over 160 countries, we call on policymakers and public health officials to work beyond COVID-19 to realize the long-standing U.S. ambition to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with vaccine-preventable diseases across the lifespan.

We believe there are three core actions to immediately address the issue, based on the successes we’ve seen with COVID-19; eliminating out-of-pocket costs, expanding the ranks of those trained to administer adult vaccines and making a renewed effort to communicate the importance of vaccination year-round.

Remove Remaining Financial Barriers. We know nationally, out-of-pocket costs are one of the most avoidable barriers to vaccination. At the start of the pandemic, policymakers wisely ensured COVID-19 vaccines were free, recognizing a known barrier to uptake. Congress should now take the long-overdue action of providing older adults access to all CDC-recommended vaccines, free of out-of-pocket costs, by passing the bi-partisan supported Protecting Seniors through Immunization Act.

Increase Adult Vaccinators. Increasing the numbers of vaccinators and vaccine sites for those 19+ was also effective in increasing vaccinations during the pandemic, thanks to legislation which made this possible. Knowing most Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy, we believe states should continue deploying pharmacy technicians as immunizers for adult vaccines, especially to increase access for underserved populations.

Sustain and Adapt Education Campaigns. Finally, we can’t underestimate the power of communication. COVID-19 vaccine awareness was high, due in large part to an unprecedented coming-together of local and national initiatives. Tailored to each community, public health messaging was culturally relevant and traditional and non-traditional partners worked to amplify the message. This playbook was a highly successful one that should be replicated moving forward for amplify importance of routine vaccination.

As one of the world’s largest vaccines companies, it is our responsibility now to step up and carry forward the successes of the COVID-19 response. We will continue to amplify these important actions with policymakers to set a new course for vaccines in the U.S. We are partnering with health care professionals, medical associations, and public health officials to discuss barriers and opportunities for improvement – so that together we can work to close the vaccination gap. We plan to regularly share our findings and we call on other stakeholders to do the same.

We cannot let lower immunization rates become the norm. Let’s learn the lessons of COVID-19, and work to prevent the significant medical, economic and societal costs that come from the burden of diseases that could have been prevented with timely vaccination. We all have a role to play in preventing disease and creating healthier communities; and we look forward to rising to the challenge and achieving this ambition together.

Judy Stewart, a pharmaceutical and vaccines executive with over 20 years of healthcare industry experience, is the Senior Vice President & Head of US Vaccines at GSK. Judy holds a BS from the University of Maryland in Marketing & International Business and received an MBA from Drexel University. She also has a professional certificate from the University of Pennsylvania in Transformational Leadership for Executives. She has served as the Co-chair of the Vaccines Policy Advisory Committee for Bio, a cross-industry trade association.

End Notes

[1]https://avalere.com/insights/declines-in-routine-adult-and-teen-vaccinations-continued-in-2021

[2] Williams, W. W., Lu, P.-J., O’Halloran, A., Kim, D. K., Grohskopf, L. A., Pilishvili, T., Fiebelkorn, A. P. (2017). Surveillance of Vaccination Coverage among Adult Populations — United States, 2015. MMWR. Surveillance Summaries, 66(11), 1–28. https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss6611a1

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Vaccination Coverage Among Adults in the United States, National Health Interview Survey, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/imzmanagers/coverage/adultvaxview/pubs-resources/NHIS-2016.html

[4] https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#vaccinations_vacc-total-admin-rate-total