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How Community ‘Trusted Messengers’ Trying To End Vaccine Hesitancy

April 29, 2021

COVID vaccine supply is now outstripping demand, in part because all those who wanted to receive the shot and had the ability to get one have done so.

Of those who remain unvaccinated, a portion are steadfast in their refusal to roll up their sleeve, while others simply don’t have the means to get into the system. Still others feel cautious, but remain open to the possibility of getting the shot.

To reach those latter two groups, the state Department of Public Health has partnered with United Way of Southeastern CT and Hartford HealthCare to launch the Trusted Messenger Program.

In two recent Zoom meetings, 30 representatives from New London County social service departments, private nonprofits and others gathered to hear how to effectively talk to their clients about COVID vaccines, and provide resources to get those individuals scheduled for shots. (In the photo above, Joseph Nales gets a vaccine from nurse Joanne Kombert at a recent vaccine clinic at Windham Heights Apartments in Willimantic, arranged through the Trusted Messenger Program.)

“All of you here sit in the role of the trusted professional,” said Joseph Zuzel, Community Health Manager for Hartford HealthCare’s East Region, which includes Backus and Windham hospitals.

“We want to give the facts and the information around COVID vaccines so that you can address the concerns in your communities. This will help you advocate for these individuals and they in turn can advocate for themselves.”

Focusing on vaccine equity and ensuring that everyone in Connecticut who is eligible is able to get the shot involves three partners, said Carter Johnson, a program facilitator working with the state Department of Public Health:

  • The state, which is responsible for providing resources and information and coordinating vaccine distribution.
  • Community partners, such as municipal agencies and private nonprofits that work with at-risk populations;
  • Healthcare providers, which provide the vaccine.

“The community partners are essential in their role because they inspire, assist and engage,” said Johnson. “You can share the correct information in multiple ways. You can help people make and then keep their vaccine appointments. And you can advocate for the needs of your communities by providing us with feedback on how we can be better.”

As of April 22, 2.8 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in Connecticut, and more than 40 percent of the adult population has been vaccinated. Dr. William Horgan, medical director of quality and safety at Backus and Windham hospitals, noted that the national “goal” of herd immunity with 70 percent vaccinated doesn’t take into account that certain demographics across the country are not reaching that threshold because of accessibility issues, fear, and mistrust of government.

“The virus will continue to decimate these communities,” he said. “That’s why these collaborations are so critical. We need to know what these populations need, what are their barriers to getting the vaccine, so we can respond.”

Barriers that have been identified include poverty, non-English speaking, medically frail/disabled, geographically isolated, lack of a healthcare provider, lack of Internet access, lack of transportation, mistrust of the government, and immigration status.

Zuzel noted that there are about 25 percent of adults in the U.S. who currently said they will not get the vaccine. Of those, 18 percent say if the vaccine were available and someone they trusted either gets it, r recommends they get it, then they would agree.

“Those are people we can reach,” he said. “But not through traditional marketing. Through you.”

The training was very well received. One person who works with homebound clients said she was unaware that the state offered in-home vaccines to homebound people, and she was going to spend the rest of her day working on getting her clients appointments. Another said she works with males of color, many of whom say they will not get the vaccine. “But you have given me the great strategy to say to them, ‘This is a way to protect your family. If you do it, they will do it.’ ”