Community-based organizations engaged in vaccine outreach have an essential role in getting accurate information out to the people they serve.
Public Good News spoke to Howard Isaacson, chief executive officer, and Adriana Buitrago, social media consultant, at Emmanuel Communities to understand how a localized approach can improve vaccine-equity efforts. Based in Naples, Florida, they shared how their team is navigating the rollout despite a lack of support for COVID-19 vaccines in the governor’s office. Here’s what they said.
[Editor’s note: The contents of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.]
PGN: The FDA has approved updated COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Novavax. What trends are you observing from your community as you provide information about the rollout?
Howard Isaacson: Our team learned of the availability [of updated vaccines] at the same time the rest of the world did. So … we’re riding the wave with our community and effectively getting the message out that new [updated] vaccines are available.
We want people to know that they are available and that they’re safe and effective. And that [we can provide] independent sources of information. And that, most importantly, informed decision-making is crucial for each individual.
We try not to say, you know, “We recommend you get the vaccine.”
If folks choose to get the vaccine, that’s fantastic. And if they have done their research and not necessarily listened to [vaccine opponents] but actually looked at authoritative sources and decided not to [get the vaccine]—for whatever reason—that is fine, too. As long as it is an informed decision based on facts and scientific data rather than talking heads.
PGN: We’re still learning about the effects that political polarization about vaccines has had on COVID-19 vaccination rates, especially in marginalized communities. What is the uptake rate in the communities you serve?
H.I.: There’s very little local data [available], particularly on a timely basis.
And even throughout the state, the reporting of who’s coming into the hospitals, test results, it’s all a mess now, particularly with home tests. So, no one really knows.
PGN: Emmanuel Communities runs the initiative VaxTruths to promote vaccine access and information in Collier County. How does your organization reconcile the facts you provide to communities when they’re also hearing state officials contradict the CDC’s guidance?
H.I.: What we have seen is that people definitely become confused—dismayed. Their confidence level in terms of decision-making becomes much more complex.
And in most of our work, we’re either making presentations to groups or having one-on-one conversations. And the one-on-ones we have found to be most effective, and then [we leverage] our community partners.
So we’re constantly pushing back [against false narratives]. We try to distance ourself from the political operatives and whatever their stances are to focus on the individual and their sources of influence.
Who do they trust?
The key is … helping to empower them to make their own decisions based on evidence and research … and we provide them access to it. Or more simply, [recommending they] talk to their doctor, their health care provider, or even their pharmacy, but trying to get them some unbiased professional advice.
PGN: After years of vaccine outreach, education, and awareness, what’s been working?
H.I.: I constantly remind our team that one of our key messaging items is that the science, the results, the observations continue to shift and that it is imperative to be aware that the information base and the knowledge base continue to grow. So, not to be static. As they run into people who are not staunchly opposed but are at least open to considering a vaccine, that they are aware of the latest results, information, and research and go from there.
[It’s key that they] understand that … COVID and the vaccines continue to evolve. And most importantly, that the research databases and results continue to evolve as well. So, despite constant conspiracy theories, we like to focus on the individual and their family and their health decisions.
We have been very intentional about targeting and getting information to African American and Hispanic [and] first-, second-, and third-generation communities within Collier County and Lee County. We recognize their needs and the influences of family members on decisions in multi-generational households.
And we’ve got African American and Spanish-speaking team members who can speak and work directly with those communities as trusted voices, as ambassadors and resources that can be relied on.
Adriana Buitrago: What we [run] into is that, “It’s getting old. COVID was two years ago. Let’s move on.”
But obviously, it’s still there, and it just evolved into something new. So our strategy is to just continue posting things and educating people. Our motto is learn, decide, act—if one person gets the message, we’re doing our job.
What’s helped us is that we’re not there to push, we’re not there to say, “You must get the vaccine or else.” We’re just there to say, “We can provide you with legitimate information, not the hearsay. And, you know, it’s up to you.”