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By: Katherine H. Capps, Executive Director, GTMRx Institute

Vaccinate. Don’t castigate.
Health neighborhoods have the power to instill vaccine confidence and slow the spread of COVID-19

July 28, 2021

“Blame the unvaccinated!”

That cry has grown louder in recent days. We hear it from respected people across the political spectrum, from President Joe Biden, a Democrat, to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a conservative Republican. We hear it from our vaccinated friends and neighbors.

I get it. We are in the midst of a crisis. Again. The highly transmissible Delta is spreading around the country. Hospitals are struggling. Again.

I get it. In fact, there’s a part of me that wants to join in their cry, because I am angry. I survived COVID-19, and I know people who died. I have every right to be angry.

It would be so easy to direct all my rage and frustration at some faceless group called “the unvaccinated.” But scapegoating them would be deeply misguided. It would accomplish nothing and would actually be counterproductive.

We don’t need to blow off steam. The ultimate goal is to get everyone vaccinated—not to create a new class of outcasts.

As Rhea Boyd, a pediatrician and public health advocate in the San Francisco Bay Area, recently tweeted, “’The unvaccinated’ are not a monolith of defectors. They are people our health care system has long underserved – Black folks, rural folks, un and un/under insured folks and young folks.” They are not all anti-vaxxers.

She expanded on that in a recent interview in The Atlantic, where she talked about the importance of trusted messengers. “People use informal communication chains: They have side conversations with the grocery-store clerk, or their niece and nephew. People will believe anecdotal health-care information that their family member suggests over the credible info that a health-care professional is giving.”

The concept of community members as trusted messengers is nothing new, but never has it been more essential. And leaders understand this. For example, the administration’s renewed vaccine push announced in early July targets local communities. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas is traveling around his state trying to convince constituents to get vaccinated. But as he explained to NPR, he’s not relying on his own authority. Instead, he’s facilitating conversations among community members.

As Ernest J. Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN, president of the American Nurses Association, puts it: “Trust + Time = Building Vaccine Confidence.” And that’s what we must do: Build vaccine confidence.

Building confidence one community at a time

Grant is a member of the  GTMRx National Task Force on Building Vaccine Confidence in the Health Neighborhood, which recently released The Get the Medications Right™ Institute’s “Building Vaccine Confidence in the Health Neighborhood.”

Among its many recommendations, the report calls for the creation of “Vaccine Confidence Leagues” to mobilize local efforts and recruit trusted messengers who can provide personalized outreach. These messengers may include physicians, nurses and pharmacists; faith leaders; business leaders; civic and tribal leaders; and organizations embedded in the life of a community, such as bodegas, boys’ and girls’ clubs, barber shops and hair salons. These Vaccine Confidence Leagues would be part of a health neighborhood, defined as clinical-community partnership that includes the medical and social supports necessary to enhance health.

We know this is the best path forward, and we’re calling on HHS to provide grants to make it sustainable.

We’re also calling on you.

Moving the needle—literally and figuratively

This is no time to marginalize the unvaccinated. Instead, it’s time to reach out. This is no time to scold; it’s a time to educate.

We must instill vaccine confidence by listening respectfully to each person’s concerns and addressing them honestly, truthfully, and in an environment of trust.

So, how do we accomplish this? First, by supporting local efforts. You don’t have to get in the trenches to help. Does your company or civic organization make community grants? Even a small one can support these grassroots efforts. Is your organization rooted in its community? Perhaps it can help create a Vaccine Confidence League.

By convening a broad group of stakeholders and members of the health neighborhood, you create a “coalition of the willing”  to develop plans and implement strategies to boost vaccine confidence locally. Look toward the long term: For now, you want to instill vaccine confidence, but these coalitions can support community health and health equity for years to come.

Second, we must rethink how we talk about the unvaccinated. Are we alienating those who most need to be supported? It’s ok to be angry. But if we want to improve vaccine rates and slow the spread of COVID-19 we cannot disenfranchise the very people who can make this happen–the unvaccinated. Use your own voice to have meaningful, non-judgmental conversations by seeking first to understand and then to be understood. It takes more time and energy to build trust. It’s easier to argue and debate, but we’re not trying to win anything. We’re trying to save lives.

To learn more about GTMRx’s vaccine confidence efforts, click here.

In addition to being Co-founder and Executive Director, Katherine H. Capps served as staff officer on the the GTMRx National Task Force on Building Vaccine Confidence in the Health Neighborhood.

Additional Resources

Read the March 2021 Background and Resources Report to Build Vaccine Confidence in the Health Neighborhood. 

Read the June 2021 Report and Recommendations of the GTMRx National Taskforce—Building Vaccine Confidence in the Health Neighborhood.

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