According to the Washington State Department of Health, more than a third of people in Washington state have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. The state’s current goal is to vaccinate about 70% of the population 16 and older to achieve herd immunity. The biggest challenge in reaching that goal is no longer availability of the vaccine but vaccination hesitancy, particularly among people in underserved multicultural communities

Vaccination hesitancy has been rising during the past several years. The reasons why are often multifaceted: cultural, logistical, historical and emotional.

“Whole-person care acknowledges that the best way to care for people with complex needs is to think of them as whole complex beings with intersecting and inseparable needs–medical, behavioral, socioeconomic and beyond,” says Carolyn Halley, medical director of HealthPoint, a nonprofit with 50 years of experience providing affordable whole-person care to underserved populations in East and South King County. “This approach has never been more true than during the past year of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. Luckily, HealthPoint was well set up for this challenge because we’ve always had an integrated approach and worked hard to establish our presence in underserved communities,” Halley says.

That integrated approach came into play in late January, just as HealthPoint was getting ramped up to vaccinate health care workers against COVID-19. Workers found 200 vaccine doses that had been left out and needed to be used in under six hours. Teams came together at 6 p.m. and formed a plan to call patients, bring them into clinics and get them vaccinated. HealthPoint’s call center immediately began reverse calling patients who fit the government’s recommendations. Nurses, who had recently left work to be with their own families, came back to help. Providers came back to provide immunizations and to help any patients who experienced side effects. The six-hour effort ended just before midnight with all doses administered.

Whole-person care boosts trust

“Trust is a very significant barrier for people of color that comes from historic discrimination and racism,” says Leanne Berge, CEO of Community Health Plan of Washington. “In immigrant communities there’s also a lot fear that even if they are documented, someone they know may be undocumented. Given the recent immigration policies of our government, they are worried about putting loved ones or neighbors at risk. Becoming part of the community is critical in establishing trust.”

It takes time and consistency to move the needle on trust. HealthPoint has embedded its clinics in the communities it serves: sponsoring food drives and events and visibly connecting with organizations that are respected and trusted by the community. For example, the organization has long-standing partnerships with community groups such as the Marshallese Women’s Association and the Somali Health Board. HealthPoint also has outreach programs in four schools, and does extensive outreach with homeless populations of all ages.

Bringing underserved groups into the clinic is far easier, according to Berge, when they see their community members inside the walls as practitioners, aides and other service providers. And, of course, offering translators is a huge plus. “It’s all about being welcoming, and respecting what a person’s needs are,” Berge says. “If they feel comfortable, they’re more likely to show up for vaccinations and other health care.”

Five things to know about the COVID-19 vaccine

Two intertwined aspects of whole-person health care are supporting personal choice and enabling educated decisions. To that end, HealthPoint offers some facts about COVID-19 and the vaccine.

  • People of color are overrepresented in COVID-19 cases in Washington state. Compared to white people and Asian people, the rate of Covid cases in our state is nearly three times higher for Black people, and nearly seven times higher for Latino people and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders. (Washington State Dept. of Health)
  • Diversity in COVID-19 vaccine testing helped assess safety and effectiveness. Clinical trials to test the vaccine effectiveness included Black and Hispanic participants, people of all age groups, and people with health conditions such as obesity and diabetes.
  • Getting vaccinated for COVID-19 is a community affair. The more people who receive the coronavirus vaccine, the quicker we can all feel safer to interact in the outside world and get back to doing day-to-day normal activities without fear.
  • Even if you’ve already had COVID-19, vaccination adds extra protection. Studies show that some people who have been infected with COVID-19 and are experiencing long-lasting symptoms have observed lessening of those conditions after the first of the two shots with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
  • Now is the best time to get vaccinated. While some people are waiting to get the coronavirus vaccine until more people have had them, vaccine hesitancy allows the virus to continue spreading with new variants emerging. The sooner you get vaccinated, the sooner you and everyone you come into contact with are protected.

HealthPoint is a community-based, community-supported, community-governed network of nonprofit health centers dedicated to providing expert, high-quality care to all who need it, regardless of circumstances.