5 Aug

Map of the Week: Using GIS to Combat ‘Vaccine Deserts’

By Nina Edward

Geography is at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic. From where the virus originated, to where it has spread, geography has been a mainstay factor contributing to the pandemic. A year and a half on, geographers are now working towards the solution- through GIS. A recent article for the New York Times discusses the ways in which GIS and geospatial data have played a central role in the vaccination campaign to end COVID-19, and it has been working. “Where are the hotspots?” “Where should funding go?” “Where do we need to increase vaccination centers?” These questions are central to getting rid of the virus, and GIS analysts are using demographic data mixed with COVID-19 data to get to the bottom of why people are not getting vaccinated, and bridge the vaccine gap.

Using GIS technology to get vaccines into communities where vaccination rates are low and vulnerability is high has been pertinent to saving lives and ending the pandemic. Those who are prioritized on the social vulnerability index are also those who are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19 are less likely to work remotely or more likely to use private transportation, increasing the risk of transmission for these communities. GIS technology is not only helping curb the pandemic, but relieving health inequities that exist nation-wide.

The above map shows the ways in which GIS is spurring vaccine campaigns across the country. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, officials mapped vaccine uptake with social vulnerability, using measurements of poverty, education, socioeconomic status, and other factors. The map on the left shows the vulnerability vs. vaccine uptake rates in March 2021, with orange areas indicating high vulnerability and low vaccination rates. Using this data, the city was able to allocate resources to these orange spots, and in July, these targeted areas saw a stark contrast. The capabilities of GIS technologies to cross-reference data and help officials understand where and why people aren’t getting vaccinated, allows governments to appropriately address and mitigate public health crises.

In another case, officials in Suffolk County, New York, were able to identify low vaccination communities with a high number of residents who did not speak English. Upon mapping this, they were able to bridge the gap to these communities and offer vaccination hotlines in Spanish and Creole, which a majority of the residents spoke. The vaccination rates increased due to increased accessibility. The above map shows this trend, with dark pink areas showing communities where vaccination rates are low and language barriers are high. Looking at the difference from March (lef) to June (right) after these resources were properly allocated, more areas are becoming less vulnerable.

Using GIS technologies for vaccine distribution is not only an American undertaking. Around the world, nations have been using similar tools to distribute vaccines and better understand the spread and threat of COVID-19, and targeting the most vulnerable populations in nations where vaccine supplies are limited.