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Tackling COVID vaccine hesitancy: It’s worth a shot

As of June 22, only 52% of North Carolina’s Black and African American population had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and only 32% of the state’s American Indian or Alaska Native residents could say the same. Among the Tar Heel State’s white population, 54% are vaccinated, while the Asian community has the highest vaccination rate of all: 75%.

Vaccine hesitancy is real and concerning, particularly because North Carolina has the seventh-highest number of total COVID-19 cases among the 50 states. Worse, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities throughout the U.S. have been disproportionately affected by this disease.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show that Native Americans are 3 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.1 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the white population. For Black people, the risk of hospitalization is 2.3 times higher, and death is 1.7 times more likely than it is for whites. Hispanics have similar risks: They suffer 2.3 times more hospitalizations and 1.8 times more deaths than their white counterparts.

All of the COVID vaccines lower the incidence of hospitalization and death. Still, there are people who continue to say, “no thanks.”

Some reasons for vaccine rejection are cultural. One researcher – Dr. Michele Andrasik with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center – noted that historical research abuses “have established doubt and skepticism about the trustworthiness of science, research institutions and government” among BIPOC communities. She points to the Tuskegee Study of untreated syphilis that followed some 400 black men with syphilis between 1932 and 1972. The study participants were never told they had syphilis, they weren’t offered antibiotics – the cure – when it became available, and more than 100 of them died for lack of this treatment. Such criminal deceit, said Dr. Andrasik, is “not easily overcome.”

There are other barriers to vaccine access, too. Early on, it many public health sites required someone to have internet access to sign up for a vaccine does, which left those on the wrong side of the digital divide with a serious disadvantage. In addition, many of the vaccine sites were only open during limited hours, making it harder for people with jobs to make their way over to one.

Today, vaccines are readily available at local pharmacies, but misinformation and mistrust continue to tamp down interest. That’s the barrier community action agencies can combat.

Spreading the word

As advocates for financially disadvantaged people – those who often are least able to shoulder the burden of serious illness or hospitalization – Community Action Agencies can use their local ties for public health. To do that, agency workers must first know the facts, and the number one fact to know is this: the COVID-19 vaccines save lives.

This past April, the Kaiser Family Foundation released an analysis of COVID-19 death rates among adults between June 2021 and March 2022. During that time, vaccines were widely available to the adult population in the U.S. Based on the KFF analysis, researchers found that some 234,000 deaths – 60% of the deaths that occurred during this time frame – could have been prevented by vaccination. That number represents nearly a quarter (24%) of COVID deaths in the U.S., a number that now tops 1,009,444.

The vaccine hesitant have many concerns and questions, and the New England Journal of Medicine has a great Q&A that can be used to educate agency staff. In this resource, you’ll find answers to questions such as:

  • How did these trials move so quickly?

  • Were vaccines tested on people like me?

  • What types of reactions have been reported after vaccination?

And of course, the document also addresses common misconceptions. You’ll find one Q&A that starts with, “I’ve heard that the mRNA vaccine …”

What follows? These facts:

  • No, it will not give you Covid-19.

  • No, it does not affect women’s fertility.

  • No, it does not contain fetal tissue, microchips, or any other devices.

There are several ways community action agencies can support vaccination efforts. Vaccines can be part of the conversation during in-take meetings, advertised with flyers in the center and featured at popular events in the community. That’s the approach the Charlotte Area Fund took this past month when it launched its new COVID-19 awareness campaign, “Good Health is Wealth,” at the Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas. The Charlotte team partnered with C.W. Williams Community Health Center to execute its campaign. The kick-off event included free health screenings, COVID vaccinations as well as opportunities to win food and gas vouchers.

For Community Action Agencies looking to do similar outreach, the North Carolina Community Action Association has created downloadable education materials, and they’re available through the Sleeves Up website dedicated to replacing myths with facts through a statewide education campaign. At the Sleeve’s Up website, you’ll find graphics, flyers, videos and more to use in educating your community.

Best of all, now is a great time for community action agencies to double down on vaccine education and awareness because these preventative measures have now been approved for children under age 5. The CDC now recommends children who are at least 6 months old receive a three-dose series if using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and a two-dose series of the Moderna. After age 5, children receive a two-dose series of the Pfizer treatment. The J&J/Janssen vaccine has not been approved for children under the age of 17.

So, what do you say, community action leaders? Vaccination saves lives, and our state still has plenty of lives yet to be protected. Now is the time to embrace education efforts and convince our vaccine-hesitant neighbors to give vaccination the shot it deserves.

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