The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is still in its beginning phases, yet already, there have been countless news stories about vaccine hesitancy among communities of color. Yes, vaccine hesitancy is certainly real — and understandable. First, there’s the history of racism and abusive medical research practices that have bred fear and distrust among individuals in these populations. Then, there’s the current reality of our national culture, where every issue is politicized and divisive, making it difficult to get to the truth.
There also are fears regarding immigration status as well as language barriers for migrant communities. And, of course, there are issues around the availability of the vaccine itself, which has been hindered by the health care inequities that already plague these populations.
In the face of all of these challenges, how do we begin to build confidence in the vaccine and trust in the medical community among communities of color? We start by choosing the right messengers and making the message about more than just the vaccine.
Yes, at a population health level, we must ensure people of color have access to the vaccine. But we must also confirm that each individual has the technology needed to make their vaccine appointment, that they know where their nearest vaccine clinic location is, and that they feel respected when they arrive, knowing that their health care needs and the needs of their community are being addressed. For example, when administering the vaccine, can health care workers also make sure patients have primary care providers or know how to get the medications they need? Helping to address these other needs beyond the vaccine is one way to help build trust.
Community Partners as Messengers
Strong community partnerships are critical to helping us promote vaccination, because this is a clear instance where the messenger truly does matter. Our focus must shift from health systems trying to make vaccine appointments with individuals to making connections with partner organizations that already are trusted by those we’re trying to reach. That could include churches, community organizations, food banks and other groups and agencies that provide support in their area.
At CommonSpirit, we’ve built a communications framework that recognizes that specific messages (and messengers) need to be community-based and grounded in the languages and cultures of the communities we aim to serve in order to be trusted.
This requires recognizing the different languages and dialects of indigenous communities as well as understanding the shifts in immigrant populations by maintaining strong relationships with the community connectors who have a sense of how communities are changing over time so that we can provide messages that reach them.
Dignity Health and CHI (which are part of CommonSpirit Health) are currently working to provide outreach to communities of color around the vaccine and beyond. For example:
We recently partnered with a community organization on a webinar in Santa Cruz, in an area with a large Mixteco population that speaks this indigenous language from Mexico. The webinar was held on Zoom and Facebook Live, where it was simultaneously translated into Spanish or Mixteco to provide trusted outreach to that population.
In early February, some of our faith community nurses used community partnerships to get the word out about vaccines. Instead of trying to connect with individual patients, they contacted local churches to advise they were holding 50 vaccines for their congregation. Within a month, they had thousands of vaccine appointments filled because of connections they made with the churches and other related organizations.
Coming Out of Our Silos
We’re working hard to build trust with communities of color, and health systems like ours must have people “on the ground” who understand what’s happening within communities and the social determinants of health that are at play, because that’s where the long-term health impact will be felt. They must also work to build authentic partnerships with organizations that have established trust in these communities.
It’s critical that health care comes out of its own silo and acknowledges that 80% to 90% of what impacts health isn’t necessarily what we do directly within the clinical setting. Therefore, we must be intentional about how we’re engaging our partners to best support them, our patients and the communities that we serve.
In communications, we often emphasize the messages. But it also matters who’s delivering those messages and how. Community partnerships are essential — right now during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and for the future, too. Our commitment to stay engaged in all of our communities must be sincere and sustained.