The messenger can be as important as the message when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine education.

“More than they look to experts, people want someone who looks like them,” Selam Unger said of local residents seeking answers in specific cultural communities.

A registered nurse and part of Rochester’s Ethiopian community, Unger said she’s had people turn to her after receiving advice from physicians with different backgrounds.

“As a community connector with Rochester Healthy Community Partnership, my purpose is to share relevant information with Ethiopians in a timely manner, and my hope with that is when the vaccine rolls out, I want people to know they are included and well informed prepared to make educated decisions for themselves and their families,” she said, adding that it’s just human nature to turn to people with shared experiences.

RELATED: Where do residents turn for vaccines?

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Mark Wieland, a Mayo Clinic physician who works to address equity as part of the Rochester Healthy Community Partnership, said local health educators have been changing approaches in their messages related to the pandemic.

“What we were being told is they weren’t reaching the immigrant community,” he said. Working with community liaisons creates two-way communication with populations that could otherwise be missed.

Overcoming Barriers

Olmsted County Public Health officials have also been seeking inroads with communities that face language barriers and have some level of distrust.

“While we are vaccinating, we have teams that are doing education and outreach to specific populations and trying to see what concerns are out there and how we can provide access and talk to people (about) why vaccines are important,” Public Health Director Graham Briggs recently told county commissioners.

With nearly three-quarters of the county’s population yet to receive a dose of vaccine, Briggs said answering questions early ensures people are ready to make informed decisions when needed.

Dee Sabol, executive director of the Diversity Council, said reaching into immigrant communities and other groups facing health equity disparities is crucial.

“We know people are struggling to get information that is culturally and linguistically appropriate,” she said.

The Diversity Council has been working with local agencies and health care providers to address pandemic concerns through virtual town hall meetings in a variety of languages.

The recurring online meetings have been held for Ethiopian, Cambodian, Hispanic, Arabic, Somali, Asian Indian, and African American communities, with the videos available on the Diversity Council Facebook page, as well as other social media platforms.

Sabol said it takes the message to another level by allowing local participants and community liaisons to hear questions and answers in a familiar language.

“We tend to think that just translating materials solves that, but it doesn’t,” she said Information packets and posters can miss nuances in language and don’t always address the questions being asked.

Questions Vary

Wieland said it’s important to make sure the work provides two-way communication, because each community brings its own concerns to the conversations.

Members of the local Hispanic community, for instance, have raised concerns after hearing that the vaccines might contain fetal tissue, which would be at odds with some religious beliefs, and Muslim residents pointed to similar reports saying vaccines include gelatin, which is restricted from their diets.

“Neither of which is true, so we are dispelling those myths,” Wieland said.

Sabol said other unique concerns circulate among specific populations, so having medical professionals personally address the concerns helps build trust.

“Distrust is probably the most pervasive issue, and then misinformation is right behind it,” she said.

Unger said distrust and misinformation can fuel each other.

“Where they get their information matters,” she said, pointing to the potential for an influential community member to quickly spread misinformation or combat it.

Yitbarek Mirete, another Ethiopian community liaison, said he’s seen firsthand how misunderstanding can lead to confusion after a local physician had a rare allergic reaction to the vaccine.

“When he was explaining why he got sick, he was very careful so people didn’t take him the wrong way,” he said, pointing out the doctor said the reaction was very rare and should not deter others from being vaccinated.

To help address lingering questions, Mirete raised the issue with Abinash Virk, a Mayo Clinic physician, during a Jan. 30 town hall meeting for the Ethiopian community.

“We have to stress that we need to help people to get the actual information,” Mirete told Virk.

Virk confirmed allergic reactions are rare and pointed to existing precautions.

Fueling Concern

Unger said the efforts to reach out to immigrant communities have raised added concerns.

“The good effort that is pulling people in, is getting people a little suspicious,” she said.

She said some members of the immigrant communities have questioned why added attention is being focused on them, pointing to distrust related to ill-informed videos suggesting vaccines could be tested in Africa before other parts of the world.

Unger and others said the local outreach isn’t a push to test the vaccine, but an effort to make sure the tested product reaches all people in an effort to avoid equity gaps seen elsewhere.

“Across the country, we are seeing that people who are white are getting the vaccine at twice the rate of people who are not white, and that’s what we want to avoid,” Wieland said. Rochester Healthy Community Partnership and other local efforts have helped close disparities in COVID testing and spread.

He said 55 percent of local COVID cases were among non-white local residents at one point. That has dropped to 30 percent throughout the pandemic, according to the latest data from Olmsted County Public Health.

“That gap has really closed, and we have done outstanding as a county in testing,” he said.

Reaching Out

The attention is shifting as more doses are released into the community.

“The work continues as we move into vaccination efforts and we are lucky to have our team of community partners walking right alongside us,” said Shaylene Baumbach, Olmsted County health promotion manager. “COVID-19 has shown us that it takes trusted community collaboration to meet the demands and get the work done, and here in Olmsted County we are lucky to have that.”

Wieland said the Rochester Healthy Community Partnership’s collaboration with Olmsted County is expected to produce added outreach in upcoming weeks.

Mirete and Unger said that means reaching out to community members individually, as well as spreading word through church groups and other places people turn for insight.

“In one way or another, they are all connected,” Mirete said of the 300 or so Ethiopians living in Rochester. “If I have a link to one or two, they will have a link to another.”

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