UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Addressing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Pennsylvania, with a particular focus on the Latino population and senior citizens aged 65 and older in rural communities, is the objective of a project spearheaded by Penn State Extension.
The Extension Collaborative on Immunization Teaching and Engagement — EXCITE, for short — is a joint effort between the nation’s Cooperative Extension System and the Centers for Disease Control.
The CDC recently provided nearly $10 million to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which in turn, is channeling the funds to land-grant universities and the Cooperative Extension System for vaccine education.
According to Katherine Cason, Penn State Extension assistant director for food, families and health programs, the EXCITE initiative will address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, as well as flu and other adult vaccinations, among rural and medically underserved communities.
“As trusted members of the communities they serve, Penn State Extension educators are in a unique position to address the issue of vaccine hesitancy and safety with unbiased, research-based educational programming,” she said. “COVID-19 vaccines are a safe and effective way to protect yourself and others from the virus and are a critical step in lessening the negative impact the pandemic is having on health care, education and the economy.”
Public health recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic have been confusing, sometimes even contradictory, as scientists gained an understanding of the virus, noted Maria Luisa Tejada de Rivero Sawers, extension educator in food, families and health, who co-directs the project with Cason.
“This situation has led to fear and anxiety among the public, resulting in lagging vaccination rates in some rural communities,” Tejada de Rivero Sawers said. “We want to increase our audience’s knowledge and trust for the COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines in general, as well as explain the benefits of herd immunity.”
Ideally, these efforts will improve vaccination rates, she pointed out, but the primary goal is to dispel myths and misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine and other adult vaccines so that people can make health decisions based on facts and science, not fear or misinformation.
To that end, the two-year pilot project will align with the CDC’s “Vaccinate with Confidence” campaign, which is designed to reinforce confidence in COVID-19 vaccines by building trust, empowering healthcare personnel and engaging communities through immunization education programs, community dialogues and clinics. Educators’ initial efforts will focus on adults 65 years of age and older in rural communities.
A second phase will provide outreach to urban and rural counties with Latino communities. Educators will focus on the counties of Adams, Berks, Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Luzerne, Schuylkill and York, where only about 12% of Hispanic adults have been fully vaccinated as compared to nearly 32% of non-Hispanic adults, per statistics from the state Department of Health.
“The Latinx population is overrepresented in coronavirus cases and is more likely to suffer severe outcomes,” Tejada de Rivero Sawers said. “Latinx adults also have been harder hit by the economic impact of the pandemic. While many are open to getting vaccinated, there remains a sizeable share, particularly among younger Hispanics, with vaccine hesitancy.”
The project begins in June with a needs assessment to understand the drivers of vaccine confidence and the barriers to vaccination among seniors and Latinx populations. This information will help guide print, radio and social media promotions to dispel myths and allay fears. Webinars and community-based sessions also will be offered, during which participants can share their personal stories and ask questions.
Extension plans to hire a community health worker who will be dedicated to outreach. “We also hope to recruit volunteers, key community leaders and trusted representatives,” Tejada de Rivero Sawers said. “They will play an important part as key informants ensuring the messages and outreach and implementation strategies are acceptable and culturally relevant.”
The extension team, which includes educators Katie Greenawalt, Nicole McGeehan and Alyssa Defazio, will be aided by the Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center; the Penn State Cancer Institute; the Hispanic/Latino Community Cancer Advisory Board in the Office of Cancer Health Equity at Penn State; and the Latinx Agricultural Network, a strategic planning group at Penn State that provides support to Pennsylvania’s Latinx agricultural community.
Another partner is the Primary Health Network, which is the largest federally qualified health center in Pennsylvania. Its clinicians will assist with vaccine administration.
The Cooperative Extension System has a century of experience as a change agent and educators in communities across America, noted NIFA Director Carrie Castille.
“NIFA is proud to be the federal partner with such a trusted educational resource, but especially in this effort to deliver science-based vaccine education,” she said. “This new partnership with CDC is a natural fit for the extension system to do what it does best — provide balanced, reliable information so people can make informed decisions.”
More information about Penn State Extension’s programs related to health can be found at https://extension.psu.edu/
–Amy Duke, Penn State University