Public Health Pharmacist Increases Vaccine Access for Underserved Groups

Lauri Saleeby, PharmD, prepares vaccines at the Union County Health Department in Monroe, North Carolina.

Ever since the COVID-19 vaccines have been available, Lauri Saleeby, PharmD, has been committed to removing barriers to access for all North Carolinians, including the three in ten who belong to ethnic or racial minority groups and the 2.2 million who live in rural areas. In partnership with local clinician colleagues, the pharmacist has helped set up COVID-19 vaccination clinics at locations around Union County with a goal of drawing people from minority groups or residing in rural areas.

Last June, Saleeby set up a vaccine clinic in a tent at the Juneteenth Celebration in Marshville, North Carolina. There, she and a team of immunizers provided a number of patients with their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine. The event was predominantly attended by local African Americans. Many African Americans, Saleeby said, have approached her about their concerns that the vaccine is a case of history repeating itself and that it’s meant to bring harm to them.

“You can’t force anyone,” said Saleeby, who is a clinical pharmacist at the Union County Health Department in Monroe. “You just have to listen and provide the facts that you have. And you may have to keep having the conversation again and again.”

In her experience, concerns about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines have dissipated in the Hispanic community that Saleeby serves as more and more members of this group get immunized. “Once we started reaching more of the population,” she said of Hispanic patients at the health department, “it wasn’t a matter of convincing them to get the vaccine—it was a matter of increasing access to it.”

To increase access, Saleeby took a colleague’s advice to set up a vaccination clinic at the Sweet Union Flea Market, where many Hispanic community members in the North Carolina Piedmont gather on weekends. While many Hispanic patients get vaccinated on site at the health department, the clinic is open only during commercial business hours. The flea market, which runs every Saturday and Sunday from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM, eliminates a key barrier to vaccination.

“Many people in our Hispanic population…work long hours during the week,” Saleeby said. “They can’t get to the health department. So, we were able to catch a group of community members that we normally would not have during the week.” Through the vaccine clinic set up at the flea market, where no appointment was necessary, Saleeby and colleagues vaccinated about 200 people on a single Saturday.

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The health department’s two-day clinic at the Union County Agricultural Center led to the vaccination of more than 5,000 people, many of whom came from rural areas to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

None of these efforts, says Saleeby, would have been possible without the network of partners and supporters who participated, including a busload of school nurses who traveled to many of the vaccination events. “When the nurses walked in, they had the biggest smiles on their faces. They had a sense of purpose and community spirit that I’ve not experienced elsewhere,” she said.

Saleeby advises all immunizers to take the approach that the school nurses did: “Remember that you’re doing this for your community. As much as you can, do it with enthusiasm and a smile on your face.”

Learn more about how to address specific patient concerns and Know What Drives Vaccine Confidence.