My Turn: Lessons learned in the vaccination of communities of color

For the Monitor
Published: 3/31/2021 4:33:14 PM

There is no question that Black, Brown and Indigenous people of color in New Hampshire have been hardest hit by the pandemic. The question for months has been: How do we overcome language and transportation barriers, and a long and well-deserved distrust of government-mandated medical care, to be sure communities of color are vaccinated?

We learned some valuable lessons in Nashua that may be useful for other cities and towns in New Hampshire.

People of color in Nashua have been disproportionately impacted. In the U.S., the pandemic has killed African Americans at nearly three times the rate of white Americans, and Latinx and Native Americans have also been far more likely to end up hospitalized and – too often – die from COVID-19. We’ve seen this same trend of two to three times the rate of impact in N.H.’s communities of color.

It is critical to protect everyone equitably. Many people of color work in essential jobs in grocery stores, health care, and food service – and, due to systemic inequities, many also have comorbidities like asthma and diabetes. It is imperative that all communities have access to and trust the vaccine. Thanks to effective steps taken by the state, cities and towns, and with the support of nonprofits, we’re getting this done by assuring Black and Brown communities the vaccine is safe and effective, and making the vaccine accessible and available.

With help from the Tufts Health Plan and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundations, we’ve embarked on an ambitious campaign to connect with folks who are at risk of being overlooked and are doing so in ways that decrease their hesitations. Questions need to be answered and misinformation countered.

And while we focus on those at highest risk, we prioritize people who go to work, then go home, and risk making parents, grandparents or neighbors sick. Two weeks ago in downtown Nashua, we vaccinated 200 community members at high risk. Last week it was 270. The word is getting out and it is working.

Our messages are simple and direct:

“We want you to be able to hug your grandchildren and safely gather again.”

“We want to keep you and your family out of the hospital and decrease the very real chance you could die from COVID.”

“The best vaccine is the one that gets in your arm.”

After conversations with hundreds of community members, we’ve learned the most effective outreach comes from community health workers, medical professionals and trusted individuals in the community. We’re dispelling myths about the vaccine and its availability, and letting people know where and when they get shots, but we need to do so in the right languages.

Every day our messages are delivered in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Kinyarwanda, Swahili and French. That message has been very effectively delivered on billboards, ads at bus terminals, and radio shows in various languages, as well as in the Spanish-language press and on our bi-weekly cable TV show Public Health Matters. We’ve learned to go where communities of color go: the Brazilian community Facebook page, for instance, and social media tools like WhatsApp and YouTube, which are popular with people in immigrant communities and where we’ve put up four videos on the vaccines. We’ve held meetings with members of the community, and just last week a Black Lives Matter Town Hall event.

The best way to reach people in a community is through people in that community: Word of mouth from family, church members, neighbors. We have worked with early adopters – the first in a neighborhood or family to get vaccinated – to help spread the message to friends and neighbors that this is safe, easy and necessary. And as an African American minister, I know the importance of the message delivered from the pulpit on a Sunday.

None of this is done alone: The Adult Learning Center, the United Way, One Greater Nashua, Lamprey Health Care Center, our partners with the state and city have made this possible. Across New Hampshire, groups like ours are helping folks who are traditionally left behind – and it’s making all of us safer.

(Bobbie D. Bagley is the Director, Public Health & Community Services for the City of Nashua.)


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