Even as many Americans have gotten their booster shots, some vulnerable populations are still reluctant to take their first Covid vaccine. Finding out what hurdles stand in their way and helping to address them is the goal of Wingate University’s Vaccine Education Initiative — a grant-funded effort to survey area residents and provide them with information and resources.
“We’re working with epidemiologists and officials at the Union County Health Department to see if we can have an impact on vaccine reticence,” explains Dr. Carolyn Ford, a pharmacy professor and the University’s director of community healthcare outreach. Using social-vulnerability index data from the CDC and information from North Carolina’s vaccine tracker system, the Health Department has identified neighborhoods in Wingate, Marshville and Monroe that could most benefit from the initiative.
That’s where Ford is taking the student volunteers on her Covid Education Task Force, formed with financial support from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and the Food Lion Feeds Charitable Foundation.
A recent Saturday found task force members outside Walmart in Monroe surveying shoppers and giving them goody bags filled with a few canned goods, some hand sanitizer, a mask, a vaccine fact sheet, and flyers detailing a number of local social services that they might find helpful.
In exchange for the bags, shoppers shared their zip codes and vaccination status. Student volunteers collected the same information from parents at a trunk-or-treat event at the Bazemore Community Center in October and during recent neighborhood canvassing in targeted areas. They have been using Wingate’s wellness van in their efforts.
Once the data is collected and analyzed, the task force will hold educational events and shot clinics in the neighborhoods. Already they are educating members of the community about the vaccine as they engage them in conversation.
“If I can help to be a determining factor for someone trying to decide about the vaccine, that’s one way I can give back to the community,” said second-year pharmacy student Tiffany Stephens as she waited to approach the next Walmart shopper with her survey. “If the person has been thinking about getting it, sometimes they ask which vaccine I got or why I got the vaccine. I tell them I didn’t want to go into a fight without some kind of protection. And that’s what the vaccine is.”
Her classmate Candice Allen from Michigan said she was glad to be a part of the initiative to help clear up information about the vaccine that may have been misconstrued. She said the surveying has also helped hone her leadership and communication skills.
“It is helping me step out of my comfort zone,” Allen said, describing approaching busy shoppers with the polls as “intimidating, but worth it.”
Jocelyn Davenport, a pharmacy student from Atlanta, had no qualms about approaching strangers. “I’m a real people person,” she said as she loaded her arms with goody bags and intercepted a group of shoppers. “I want to help the community and make sure everyone has a chance at living a long and healthy life.”
Stephens, who already holds a degree in public health, said she sees benefits of the polling that could even transcend the Covid pandemic.
“If we can see where people’s heads are and understand their perspective, who knows? This kind of information could help with other vaccines in the future,” she said.
Dr. Ford says community members who have not been vaccinated have offered a variety of reasons ranging from specific religious objections to more general “wait-and-see” attitudes.
“Some people say they have underlying health problems that make them cautious about taking the vaccine, but what they don’t realize is that those problems often mean they need the vaccine more than ever,” Ford says.
She hopes conversations the task force is having with members of the community will help dispel myths about the vaccine being “too new to trust” or altering DNA.
“Without proper education, some people will refuse to receive the vaccine,” Ford says. “The task force we’ve established and the events we are putting together will help improve the understanding and wellbeing of the underserved while also providing hands-on learning experiences for our students.”
Dec. 29, 2021