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How Doctors Are Encouraging COVID-19 Vaccination in Communities of Color

A Black healthcare worker with a face shield and gloves giving a vaccine to an older Black woman wearing a mask.

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Key Takeaways

  • Government distrust, misinformation, and lack of access all contribute to vaccine hesitancy in communities of color.
  • As part of a new campaign to promote vaccine acceptance, doctors are joining forces across the country for the Roll Up Our Sleeves campaign.
  • Research indicates that as more people are vaccinated and infection rates stabilize or drop, more people are willing to get vaccinated.

When Linda Odenigbo's, MD, patients ask her about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine, she does not offer up a long list of why they should get it. Instead, she shows them a photo of her own vaccination, which she received just days after the Pfizer vaccine was authorized in the United States.

For many people in BIPOC communities, photos like this are worth a thousand pamphlets. Many doctors are taking this hands-on approach to encourage vaccination in communities of color.

And now some are even joining forces for the Roll Up Our Sleeves campaign—sponsored by agilon health in collaboration with 50 physician practices in 15 markets nationwide—to support vaccine efforts across the country.

What Is Vaccine Hesitancy?

In communities of color, vaccine hesitancy is tied to systemic medical racism and abuse. But it can also be a potential roadblock to reaching widespread vaccination. Physicians are reaching out to patients personally to address concerns about vaccines and give them accurate information.

Hesitancy in Vulnerable Communities

Distrust in the process, timeline, or belief in the severity of the virus has contributed to hesitancy in many of the communities that have been hardest hit by COVID-19. According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 14% of Black Americans say that they are not planning to get the vaccine, and 34% will wait and see. However, research has shown that nearly 60% of people who are hospitalized with COVID-19 are Black or Hispanic.

Odenigbo, a pediatrician with PriMED Physicians in Huber Heights, Ohio, has witnessed hesitancy toward vaccines in her own patients, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The biggest concern for them is how quickly the vaccine was made," Odenigbo tells Verywell. "There's a higher incidence of vaccine hesitancy in our community as a whole. You have people that say, 'I want to wait on this until next year. I don't want to get the Gardasil vaccine or hepatitis A yet; I'll wait and see.' But with COVID, we don't have the luxury of time."

Bringing Vaccine Awareness Home

The new awareness campaign hinges on a video that features doctors from across the nation outlining not only the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine but of vaccines throughout history. Direct information from trusted doctors and leaders can help bolster confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines.

Odenigbo says that education is the key to changing minds. With an abundance of misinformation online, Odenigbo says that she and her colleagues have prioritized educating their community about the history of mRNA technology through town hall-style meetings, text messages with patients, and those all-important vaccine photos.

Individuals who are questioning the vaccines are not necessarily unreachable, but Odenigbo says that the greater concern is ensuring that the information reaches the community.

"The health department has foot soldiers going out into the communities—to hair salons, beauty salons, barbershops, grocery stores that are important for people of color," Odenigbo says. "You have to eat, and most people still do their hair, so those places are prime targets for pamphlets and for educating shop owners so that they can have conversations with others."

In Ohio, Odenigbo says they are fortunate that most people—even if they are vaccine-hesitant—are still complying with social distancing and mask-wearing. She says that most people do believe that the virus poses a threat—they just do not trust that the government or vaccines will fix it.

Addressing Language and Access Barriers

In Wilmington, North Carolina, David Schultz, MD, chief medical officer for Wilmington Health, faces a different problem: a language barrier. Although Wilmington is still demographically primarily white, physicians are concerned with distributing the vaccine equitably, which means reaching native Spanish-speakers.

Wilmington Health is the largest independent practice in the area. So far, its efforts to reach the Spanish-speaking population include a public service announcement in Spanish and arranging vaccination events in community centers that service Hispanic neighborhoods.

"We are a large agricultural area, and there's a large community of Spanish-speaking immigrants here," Schultz tells Verywell. "I think it's a no-brainer to say that across the country, there are lots of Spanish-speaking communities that probably aren't getting the message directly. They need an opportunity to hear the message."

Reliance on public transportation and inadequate access to vaccine appointments are large roadblocks for many people in the Hispanic community. Additionally, some people may have concerns about fetal cells in vaccines, while others question changing guidelines as more research is made available.

"Anytime you're asking people to schedule themselves for vaccines, you are favoring people that have access to resources quickly," Schultz says. "Access to the internet, the time to wait for appointments, the ability to take off of work for a vaccination appointment."

Medical Workers Are Hesitant Too

While overall vaccine acceptance is slowly increasing, the remaining hesitancy is not limited to patients. "There's still large amounts of misinformation, even within our own medical community," Schultz says. "I was surprised to find that nearly 45% of our employees haven't been vaccinated yet, even though they had the vaccine available to them."

The challenges for healthcare providers abound, and they have had to get creative to overcome them. "We've done some things like massive Zoom meetings within Wilmington Health where employees were invited to ask questions of the experts," Schultz says. "We've had panels with our infectious disease doctor that leads our vaccine effort. We're basically repeating the message through trusted messengers. And we're listening."

Results Foster Hope

Schultz says that one of the most powerful tools for promoting vaccine acceptance is results. More COVID-19 vaccines becoming available and falling rates of infection and hospitalization are concrete outcomes that illustrate the vaccine's effectiveness.

"The one thing I love to point out is how rates of COVID in nursing homes is just plummeting. They are falling precipitously, and it's so encouraging," Schultz says. "As a hospital-based physician, I've watched so many people die of COVID. It's been awful. I think that every physician is just really relieved and energized to get people vaccinated so we can return to normalcy."

What This Means For You

One of the best ways to encourage COVID-19 vaccination is by reaching those in your close circle who may be unsure about the vaccines. If you want to learn more about the best ways to approach these conversations, Verywell's Healthy Conversation Coach will simulate a real chat with a friend or loved one who is uncertain about getting vaccinated. The Conversation Coach will provide tips for navigating difficult exchanges in a calm, respectful, and clear manner.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor: February 2021. Updated February 26, 2020.

  2. Rodriguez F, Solomon N, de Lemos JA, et al. Racial and ethnic differences in presentation and outcomes for patients hospitalized with covid-19: findings from the american heart association’s covid-19 cardiovascular disease registryCirculation. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.120.052278