Pharmacist Counters Vaccine Hesitancy in Vietnamese American Community and Beyond

Pharmacist Katie Bell (right) and a colleague prepare to register patients prior to a mass vaccination event near Seattle, Washington.

Katie Bell, PharmD, practices at QFC Pharmacy in Kirkland, Washington, just three miles from Life Care Center of Kirkland, the site of the nation’s first COVID-19 outbreak in February 2019. Some of her patients were infected in that initial outbreak.

“It’s personal for us,” Bell said of herself and pharmacist colleagues at the Kirkland supermarket pharmacy. “So, as soon as we had the opportunity to receive the vaccine, all QFC pharmacists jumped at the chance.” Bell has also jumped at every chance to vaccinate members of her community. She puts special emphasis on outreach to fellow Vietnamese immigrants whom she says often lack information about the vaccine in a language they can understand.

“They want to know what exactly the vaccine is and whether it will give them COVID,” Bell said. “Others say they just aren’t ready.”

Bell focused her initial efforts on White Center, Washington, a southwest Seattle neighborhood where, in stark contrast to the rest of Seattle, 60 percent of the population is not White. The diverse community is home to immigrants and refugees from all over the world, including many multigenerational families from Bell’s native Vietnam. More than 12,000 Vietnamese people live in Seattle.

In addition to administering vaccinations, Bell set up appointments, checked in patients, served as an interpreter for Vietnamese people, and recruited numerous Vietnamese volunteers to help reassure Vietnamese patients and accompany them through the vaccination process. Though the setting was a vaccine clinic where patients appeared voluntarily to receive the immunization, Bell encountered plenty of vaccine hesitancy there.

Young and middle-aged adults brought their older parents to receive the vaccine—yet, even though they were also eligible, refused it for themselves. “This was a time for me to step up my game and encourage them,” Bell said.

First, Bell appealed to their shared cultural history. She reminded them of the toll that polio took on Vietnam, which wasn’t certified polio-free until 2000. “I tell them, ‘When you and I were growing up, we didn’t have the polio vaccine,’” she said. “‘It affected whole families, a whole generation, and we still see the effects today. People still walk with canes or with a limp because of polio.’” She reminded them that in order to end the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone must step up to get vaccinated just as they did with polio vaccination.

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Bell doesn’t reserve this approach only for her compatriots. She opens up to all patients who are hesitant to be vaccinated in the hope of winning their trust so they will accept the vaccine.

“Vaccine hesitancy is not limited to a certain group. It’s everywhere,” said Bell. “These are our neighbors and our community, so we have to be prepared to fight vaccine hesitancy…whenever we see it.”

Recently, a White, male, American, young adult came into the pharmacy. He told Bell that his mother, with whom he lived, had insisted he get the vaccine but he didn’t want it. He said that as a young person, he believed he could beat COVID-19 if he got it.

Bell explained that without the vaccine, there was no guarantee that he would beat the virus—and that by getting the vaccine, he’d be protecting other people, too. As an example of how vaccines protect everyone, not just the individual, Bell told the man about when she grew up in Vietnam while polio was still a threat.

“I could tell he was really interested in hearing that story,” Bell continued, “and eventually he said, ‘Ok, you talked me into it.’ Patients respond positively when you open up and talk about your personal experiences, rather than just telling them what they should do.”