Harness Those Whom You Believe to Be the Most Effective Vaccine Advocates

Ambar Keluskar (second from right) with clinicians and staff at a vaccine event hosted by Hatzalah Ambulance Corporation in Brooklyn, New York.

When Rossi Pharmacy in the Ocean Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, started receiving shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine, Ambar Keluskar, PharmD, supervising pharmacist, wanted to ensure that members of the community had first dibs on the long-awaited vaccines. So, he promoted the vaccine and offered it to any eligible people around the working-class neighborhood.

“At the beginning, some people acted like I was offering them poison,” Keluskar recalled.

They’d counter the community pharmacist’s offer with tales of horrific vaccine adverse effects they’d read about on Facebook.

Those who were slightly less averse to the vaccine said they planned to wait until more people received the vaccine, and then they would get it. Some expressed concerns that the vaccine was developed too quickly. Others in the predominantly Black and Hispanic patient population said the clinical trials didn’t include enough people who looked like them. Some complained it was too hard to get an appointment or that the lines were too long.

A gentle but persistent offer

Over the last 6 months, Keluskar has slowly chipped away at vaccine hesitancy in his community. “You don’t have to make the hard sell right then and there,” he explained. “You’re their local neighborhood pharmacist. You see them 12 times a year—more than their doctor. So, you have all these micro-opportunities to whittle away at the hesitancy and the rumors. You just keep making the gentle offer.”

While Keluskar continues to make the gentle offer to every unvaccinated patient who approaches the pharmacy counter, he has also stepped out from behind the counter to host and coordinate vaccination events in the area.

The value of trusted neighbors

He started with local housing complexes. That was a way to reach older adults with mobility issues that kept them from going off-site to get the vaccine. These residential events also allowed Keluskar to harness those whom he believes to be the most effective vaccine advocates.

“The strongest vaccine advocates are your neighbors,” he said. “That’s why, especially early on, any time we vaccinated someone in the community, we asked them to spread the word as much as possible. It was really quite effective and caused a snowball effect.”

That approach is particularly effective when people get the vaccine in their apartment building, where they can immediately send their neighbors downstairs to do the same.

Thus far, Keluskar and his pharmacist colleagues at Rossi have done about 15 first-dose clinics and 15 second-dose clinics. At their peak, they vaccinated 350 people in a day.

Leveraging community partners

Rossi Pharmacy also partnered with UJA-Federation of New York, a Jewish philanthropic organization, to bring the vaccine to Jewish community centers. There, rabbis joined forces with the pharmacists to address people’s concerns and get the message out about the importance of vaccination. The UJA-Federation provided volunteers from the local Jewish community, whose presence went a long way to reassure those who might be hesitant. “We even saw some of the volunteers hold the patients’ hands while they got vaccinated,” Keluskar said.

The UJA-sponsored events included a pop-up vaccine clinic at the Hatzalah Ambulance dispatch in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. Hatzalah ambulances serve predominantly Jewish neighborhoods throughout greater New York. Borough Park is home to the largest Orthodox Jewish population outside of Israel.

Keluskar also called on UJA to help him use a windfall of doses the pharmacist suddenly came into when a hospital in the Bronx had received more doses than they could use in the next 7 days. They got word of the extra doses on a Monday and worked quickly with UJA to organize a series of events through which they vaccinated 1,200 people over the next week. “Our flexibility and ability to leverage technology rapidly was key to being able to meet this challenge,” he said. “But vaccinating is only half the battle. There’s still a fairly significant amount of work to enter them into the system and report the immunization.”

Changing tack

Now, more than 6 months into the U.S. vaccination effort, big vaccine events are no longer the most effective way to reach those last holdouts. Those who are most likely to show up at such an event have received the vaccine by now.

“We’re currently in talks with the rabbi [at one of the UJA vaccination sites] about how to pivot our efforts now that it’s no longer really about these mass vaccine sites. It’s now more about reassuring people about the vaccines.”

Back at Rossi Pharmacy, Keluskar’s focus remains on that gentle offer. The pharmacy has removed any barriers to vaccination. Rather than organize off-site events, the pharmacy allows patients to walk up and get the vaccine at any time without an appointment.

“This is possible because New York State is now prioritizing not missing vaccination opportunities over not wasting small amounts of vaccine,” Keluskar said. “We’re leaning on the trust our patients have in our pharmacy. Through the convenience of the walk-up model and reminders that we have the COVID-19 vaccine at checkout, we’re consistently vaccinating about 8 to 10 people per day.”