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Weill Cornell Medical College and Hunter nursing students help administer 176 COVID-19 vaccine doses Feb. 27 at the Clinical and Translational Science Center’s community vaccination site in Jamaica, Queens.

Weill Cornell Medicine addresses vaccine hesitancy, access

Diversity leaders at Weill Cornell Medicine have launched ambitious community vaccination and education efforts early on in the vaccine rollout, with the goal of improving uptake and helping those who are reluctant overcome their concerns.

Between 70 to 90% of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity and bring the pandemic under control, according to public health experts. Yet 13% of Americans report they will definitely not get a vaccine, and another 24% are planning to wait and see or will only get one if required, according to a Kaiser Health News poll reported March 30.

Though much attention has focused on hesitancy of Black and Hispanic populations, recent polling suggests that slightly more Black people plan to get vaccinated than do whites. Health care professionals who work with and belong to Black and brown communities say the focus needs to be as much on making the vaccine easy to access as on hesitancy.

Although anyone over age 16 is now eligible in New York state for a vaccine, getting an appointment can be a challenge, putting some at a disadvantage.

“If you don’t have good Wi-Fi, or you don’t know how to navigate the websites, you’re probably just going to give up,” said Dr. Said Ibrahim, senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion and professor of population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine. “The problem right now is largely access to the vaccine… It’s a little premature to call it all about hesitancy.”

NewYork-Presbyterian in January opened a vaccination site at the Armory, prioritizing appointments for eligible residents of the Washington Heights, Inwood, Harlem and South Bronx communities. Additionally, the Weill Cornell Medicine Clinical and Translational Science Center has worked with the Community Healthcare Network of federally qualified health centers to administer 2,505 vaccine doses at sites staffed by Weill Cornell Medical College students in church and nonprofit spaces in the Bronx and Queens.

They plan to expand these efforts this month, joining with Hunter College nursing students to run vaccination clinics four days a week at churches in Jamaica, East New York and Harlem, with the aim to vaccinate 100,000 people by September.

Dr. Julianne Imperato-McGinley, director of the CTSC and a professor of medicine who is leading the effort with Jeff Zhu, managing director of community engagement and research at the CTSC, says it’s important to make vaccination available in people’s own communities, particularly at “trusted spaces,” like places of worship or a neighborhood organization.

She and Zhu had previously worked with the reverend of a church and his congregation on a free health screening program called Heart to Heart. He reached out to CTSC and got vaccinated himself in front of his congregants.

“The point about community trust is essential. That’s why we’re doing this with faith-based communities, where the community knows the people hosting the event,” Imperato-McGinley said.

COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, and some from these groups report mistreatment today and remain underserved by the health care system.

For this reason, questions about vaccines should be seen as self-advocacy rather than hesitancy, public health experts have said. To help health care professionals respond to questions and concerns, in March Weill Cornell Medicine trained “vaccine ambassadors” as relatable, credible sources of information.

“It’s not about convincing people. It’s about providing information that is sorely missing. It’s about empowerment and access,” said Dr. Susana R. Morales, associate professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and director of the institution’s Diversity Center of Excellence within the Cornell Center for Health Equity, who spearheaded the ambassador training.

“Physicians of color are amongst the trusted messengers in communities of color because of histories of mistreatments,” she said. “What I tell patients is, ‘I promise you I’ve done the research about COVID vaccinations to decide whether I can recommend vaccines to you and whether I was going to accept the vaccine myself.’”

In response to concerns about the speed of vaccine development, Morales said she describes how clinical trials were able to enroll thousands of diverse volunteers and produce results quickly because of how widespread the virus has been. Additionally, given the scale of the pandemic, regulatory agencies prioritized review of the vaccines, and governments and manufacturers invested heavily in their development.

The COVID-19 STEM Community Education and Empowerment Internship, another effort Morales recently launched, will bring together Weill Cornell Medicine and other area medical schools this spring and summer to train undergraduates interested in medical and health careers on the vaccine and addressing hesitancy.

More than 770 students from 28 states, Puerto Rico, Washington D.C., and three other countries have enrolled in the internship. For their capstone project, students will create social media campaigns or presentations about the vaccine targeted to lay audiences and will commit to speaking to at least 10 people about getting vaccinated.

“Even if we only have 300 per cohort, that's 3,000 people we’ll reach,” Morales said.

Weill Cornell Medicine’s recent Diversity Town Halls, hosted by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, have also centered around vaccination. In January the event featured former leaders of the National Medical Association, the oldest and largest Black physician organization, speaking about the history of vaccine hesitancy among racial and ethnic minorities, and a second in March included faith leaders who are working to educate their congregants about the vaccine.

While there has been a strong focus on hesitancy among groups of color, currently Republicans and white evangelicals are the most likely to say they won’t get a shot, with close to 30% of each group holding this position, according to the Kaiser poll. Among nearly all groups, hesitancy has dropped significantly since the rollout began late last year. Blacks now are just as likely as whites to say they’ll get the vaccine, at 73% compared to 70%, according to a survey reported March 12 by NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most hesitant groups is health care workers. Megan Downes, a registered nurse and clinical quality and patient safety manager at Weill Cornell Medicine who spoke at the March Diversity Town Hall, says they often have a “wait-and-see” approach.

“I was weighing the risk of getting COVID and what that might mean for me and my family health-wise, versus taking a chance on the vaccine,” she said. “So I came down on the side of the vaccine.” Now, as a registered nurse and a Black woman, she’s trying to have conversations with people she knows who have what she says are legitimate questions about the vaccine.

“We need advocates who look like me to be part of the system,” Downes said. “I try to be honest about what isn’t known about the long-term effects but also focus on what we do know. What I can do is try to set an example and answer questions, and try to encourage others to do the same.”

Read the full story on the Weill Cornell Medicine website.

Elaine Meyer is a writer and editorial consultant for Weill Cornell Medicine.

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Jennifer Gundersen