Independent Pharmacist Brings Vaccines to Immigrant Communities

Pharmacist Amelia Arnold (second from right) at a COVID-19 vaccine pop-up clinic at the Augusta Multicultural Center in Maine. (Photo courtesy of Capital Area New Mainers Project.)

In a state like Maine, which is among the nation’s least racially and ethnically diverse states, minority and immigrant populations often live in exceptionally isolated communities. Besides the challenges this creates for health equity in general, isolated communities can present unique barriers to state public health goals to get entire populations vaccinated against COVID-19.

Since the vaccine rollout began in Maine, Amelia Arnold, PharmD, has made it her mission to overcome some of these barriers. An estimated 10,000 Arab Americans live in Maine, and this predominantly Muslim population is growing fast.

“We worked very hard to get as many members of this community vaccinated before Ramadan as we could, knowing that during a very religious and holy time, they would not be as [eager] to get the vaccine,” said Arnold, who is pharmacy operations manager at Community Pharmacies, an independent pharmacy with nine locations in the state.

Understanding that members of Maine’s Arab American community—mostly recent immigrants from Somalia, Iraq, and Sudan—might be unlikely to navigate online appointment scheduling and get themselves to community pharmacies, Arnold sought to bring the vaccines to them. She accomplished this by partnering with Capital Area New Mainers Project, an organization whose mission is to welcome immigrants and build a cross-cultural community in central Maine.

“We went to places where they would feel most comfortable [such as an Arab American community center] to provide the vaccine,” Arnold said.

The setting made it possible for entire families to attend a vaccination appointment together. The community center also provided translators so that pharmacists could answer all the patients’ questions.

“It was a very [unhurried], nonmedical setting where entire families were in a room together talking and supporting each other,” she said.

In addition to immigrants, Arnold focused on other groups in the community in need of vaccination. When some of the larger pharmacy operations in Maine started to reduce their COVID-19 vaccine distribution activities, the state reallocated vaccine supply and increased vaccine allocation to independent pharmacies. Arnold used Community Pharmacies’ allotment to coordinate vaccine clinics at assisted-living and independent-living group homes for older adults, where she and her team received mixed reactions to the vaccine.

“Residents and their family members were very excited because they knew it was a step towards seeing their loved ones again,” Arnold said. “But when it came to people who worked in the group homes, that’s where we had to address hesitancy.”

Sometimes Arnold knew that she and other pharmacists would not necessarily be the people who staff members at the living facilities would trust the most for vaccine information. At one group home, many staffers who were hesitant to receive the vaccine were immigrants from several African countries. Arnold leaned on translators, brought in by the owner of the organization, to relay the facts about the vaccine. She also received help from community elders who were in favor of vaccination.

“At one of the group homes, a community elder got his vaccine [live-streamed] over Facebook,” she said.

Practice Pearl

Use translators to relay facts about the vaccine to people whose first language isn’t English. Engage community elders who are in favor of vaccination to build trust with people in their community about the desirability of immunization.

Learn more

Arnold says it’s important to acknowledge the individual concerns of vaccine hesitant people before moving forward with counseling. For example, when someone suggests that the vaccine is “too new,” she responds by saying, “You’re right—it’s very new, but here’s what we know about it.” She follows that statement with details about how the Food and Drug Administration reviewed the vaccine, what the safety data show, and the fact that it is more dangerous to get COVID-19 than to get the vaccine.

Categorically, Arnold emphasizes the importance of sharing one’s personal vaccine story with people who are hesitant to be vaccinated. She says telling people, “The reason I chose to get the vaccine is because I want to protect my parents and my family from possibly getting COVID-19,” can help move them from a wait-and-see attitude to wanting to be vaccinated.