In 2021, the nation’s digital divide presents itself as a serious obstacle to public health and wellness. In order to ensure an effective COVID-19 vaccination roll out and the continuity of routine medical care, local governments must leverage existing federal programs and its own public WiFi access points to help those who are offline to schedule COVID-19 vaccinations in the immediate future and to access telemedicine health services.
In the United States, a country in which 45% of residents suffer from at least one chronic disease, the pandemic has created a need for increased telemedicine adoption. In 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the number of weekly telemedicine visits “rose by a 23-fold increase.” Telemedicine adoption has emerged during a 2020-2021 period in which more than 36 hospitals around the country filed for bankruptcy, causing the United States to fall further behind its industrial world counterparts in the number of hospital beds per 1,000 people.
Amidst this rise in telemedicine adoption, an October 2020 study by the UCLA School of Medicine recommends that healthcare providers place an “emphasis on improving the mobile app version of [healthcare portals]” given that 70% of safety-net portal users log in from a phone. Provided that additional federal funding and healthcare administrator enthusiasm are likely to make telemedicine a permanent option, the proposed $3.2 billion investment into the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program would help to ensure that telemedicine users are able to maintain high-speed Internet access.
Amidst the ongoing effort to make COVID-19 vaccines available, reports have emerged of persons who want a vaccine being unable to access it due to language barriers and online portals that are not mobile friendly. 13-24% of the country’s households either lack internet access of any sort or do not have in-home broadband connections. Official social media messaging is accessible on mobile devices but may filter only into specific echo chambers. This can complicate both the research of vaccine information and online appointment registration for up to a quarter of Americans. Since many of the public libraries, community centers and school computer labs are still operating at reduced capacity, Americans without in-home broadband are left without critical access points for receiving education about vaccines and for registering for appointments. Simply, the lack of connectivity can interfere with direct paths to vaccination for populations who already face persistent healthcare and economic barriers.
The digital divide will not magically “figure itself out.” The communities most disparately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic are still struggling to get online for relief. It is also preventing them from getting in line for vaccinations.
At every stage of the pandemic, broadband connectivity gaps have made the crisis much worse. Until we commit to bringing broadband connectivity and the tools to adopt within reach for every resident, large numbers will continue to miss out on COVID-19 vaccines, routine doctor appointments, and other essential care. Others will continue to be captive to the pandemic. Thankfully, the necessary tools and resources are already in our tool belt.