Helping Underserved People Overcome Fear and Logistics Problems to Get Vaccinated

Ijeoma Uwakwe, PharmD, (white coat) and colleagues prepare for a vaccine clinic at Nobles Chapel Baptist Church in North Carolina.

During the months that Ijeoma Uwakwe, PharmD, has been administering COVID-19 vaccines in Wilson, North Carolina, her greatest reward has been eliminating barriers to vaccination for those who think they can’t (or don’t want to) get the immunization.

When online appointments or literacy is a barrier, Uwakwe schedules the appointment for the patient. When transportation is the barrier, she takes the vaccines to community sites, such as churches, that many people can access on foot. When fear is a barrier, Uwakwe determinedly listens to patients’ concerns and addresses them one by one.

“Seeing people that ordinarily won’t get the vaccine due to logistics of transportation, literacy or hesitancy getting the vaccine has been the greatest reward.”

Uwakwe offers vaccines six days a week at WilsonValue Drug Store, which she and her husband own. During the initial rollout, when immunization was available only to older adults, demand was high. People waited in line and placed their names on the waiting list to ensure they received their vaccination as soon as possible.

But once slots opened to people under 45 years old, demand dropped. Uwakwe explained, “Young people between the ages of 20 and 45 use social media more, and they don’t get a lot of positive information about the vaccine from there.” She continued, “They’ve gotten the idea that there is something in the vaccine that will hurt them.”

Uwakwe has an arsenal of responses for people who say they don’t trust what’s in the vaccine. First, she explains to her patients that if the vaccine were hurting people, it wouldn’t remain on the market. But she says the personal stories are what really hit home.

Uwakwe tells people that she, her husband, and her children have been vaccinated and have not experienced any adverse reactions from the vaccine. Uwakwe also tells them about another pharmacist at her practice site, who was among the first to receive the vaccine as a health care provider. Later, when three members of the pharmacist’s household got COVID-19, the pharmacist was spared.

“When I tell them real-life stories, it can change minds,” Uwakwe said.

The key to these conversations, Uwakwe said, is patience. She advises pharmacists not to be aggressive or pushy but rather to take their time addressing each concern. It’s worth the time, Uwakwe said, because “many times, if they are already in the pharmacy, they most likely want the vaccine. They just want more information first.”

Practice Pearl

Personal vaccination and COVID-19 stories hit home with many vaccine hesitant people under the age of 45.

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When the pharmacy is closed on Sundays, Uwakwe focuses on eliminating the physical and cognitive barriers to vaccination. She runs vaccination clinics at local churches that serve predominantly African American or Hispanic congregations.

Since the beginning of the vaccine rollout, she made it her mission to reach minority and underserved groups. She felt that churches were the ideal starting point.

“Traditionally, in African American culture, churches are trusted, and people know the pastor wouldn’t hurt them,” Uwakwe said.

These clinics typically take place at the invitation of pastors, who promote the vaccine among the congregants in the preceding days. Church-based clinics, she said, serve a lot of older adults who would not typically go to a pharmacy or overcome administrative barriers to vaccine access.

“It has been a great joy going out to these community events and seeing the people who wouldn’t normally come into the pharmacy and getting them vaccinated.”

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