The world faces an enormous challenge in addressing the social, economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. For excluded and marginalized populations, inequities in these areas have amplified the impact of the pandemic.
In the United States, disproportionately-impacted populations like Native American, Latino/a/x, Black, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander populations and others have experienced poor health outcomes in almost every category, including rates of COVID-19 hospitalization and death. In addition, these populations have suffered disproportionally from lost jobs and wages, housing and food insecurity, increased household stressors, mental health challenges and interrupted schooling brought on by the pandemic.
As part of the CDC Foundation’s COVID-19 Corps, an initiative that places staff in public health departments around the country, the CDC Foundation began building capacity for community-based organizations (CBOs) to leverage resources and strengthen local response to the pandemic. CDC Foundation staff, hired through the federal surge hiring project and placed in local health departments across the country, began asking CBOs and health departments alike: “What do you need?” Lisa Waddell, MD, MPH, chief medical officer for the CDC Foundation, explains that CDC Foundation staff facilitated the connections between CBOs and health departments.
“Sometimes it was the health department saying, ‘We really need some help reaching this population in our state. Can you all help us?’” Waddell said. “In other cases, it was the CBO saying ‘We’re here! Here’s what we’re hearing. We need help getting in the door.’ The CDC Foundation strengthened the collaboration, the partnerships, the connections.”
As the world entered its second year of COVID-19, the CDC Foundation began making plans to support CBOs as they worked specifically to increase acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccines and advance health equity. In total, the CDC Foundation supported more than 240 CBOs throughout the United States to promote COVID-19 vaccination and reduce disease burden.
“The opportunity to work and partner with CBOs is an excellent opportunity to put our equity principles into practice,” said Lauren Smith, MD, MPH, chief equity and strategy officer for the CDC Foundation. “It’s one thing to have a set of principles and to have a set of priorities. It’s a different thing to then implement them and go through the work of living into those principles and priorities.”
As CBOs found success in supporting communities and addressing vaccine hesitancy, more organizations reached out to the CDC Foundation with support for work on the ground, particularly in underserved communities experiencing the effects of longstanding health inequities.
Uniquely positioned within communities, CBOs are trusted voices that have earned credibility by understanding and addressing local needs. CBOs help address the spread of misinformation, promote uptake of relevant, accurate, culturally responsive information and provide coordinated prevention and support services to communities at increased risk. They also convey essential health and safety information in ways that specifically address misinformation and skepticism born from exclusionary and discriminatory practices.
“The pandemic highlighted the central nature of community organizations in the public health fabric,” Smith said. Although launched as an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this ongoing partnership will have a lasting impact. By facilitating trainings and peer mentorship, elevating stories and amplifying the work, the CDC Foundation is promoting the sustainability of CBOs and supporting communities as they address other critical issues like chronic disease, violence, suicide and the health impacts of climate change.
“COVID clearly shed a light on the value of community-based organizations and the trust and the knowledge they have,” Waddell said. “The work that we’re doing now to help build that capacity will help improve health not only now, but in the future.”
Positioned at the intersection of the public and private sectors, the CDC Foundation is well-suited to continue promoting connections to CBOs. By mobilizing federal funds, along with resources from private donors and philanthropic partners, the CDC Foundation has positioned itself to have an impact on the health of communities across the country.
Portions of the projects mentioned in this article are supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $68,939,536 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government.