Vaccines Belong in People’s Arms. Educate with the Facts.

Emlah Tubuo administers a vaccine at an event for employees of Liberty Casting Co. in Delaware, Ohio.

From the moment Powell Pharmacy in Powell, Ohio, began offering COVID-19 vaccines, owner Emlah Tubuo, PharmD, MS, found herself fielding questions all day long.

“Do you trust the vaccine? Do you think it was studied enough? How long has this mRNA technology been around? Does mRNA change my DNA?”

Rather than answer the same questions again and again, Tubuo decided to record a video that plays on loop in her pharmacy and on the store’s Facebook page, where it’s been shared more than 50 times. In the video, Tubuo stands before a whiteboard, where she has drawn diagrams of the COVID-19 virus and mRNA, and she explains how mRNA triggers the immune system to create antibodies against spike proteins. Wearing a t-shirt that reads “Choose kindness always,” she closes by saying that getting the vaccine is an act of kindness to yourself and to everyone around you.

Social media draws in people with vaccine questions

After seeing Tubuo’s video on Facebook, people who’ve never been to her pharmacy have come in to ask questions about the vaccine.

“I tell them that our rule at the pharmacy is not just to give vaccines,” Tubuo said, “but to educate people about them.” Tubuo has put great effort into educating people about the COVID-19 vaccines, from how they were studied to how they work and what adverse effects people can expect.

Concerns about trial diversity

Powell, Ohio, is a predominantly White community, so Tubuo actively seeks out Black people to spread the word about the vaccine and to counter hesitancy. Many Black people she encounters question whether Black people were sufficiently represented in the vaccine trials. In clinical trials in general, Black people tend to be grossly underrepresented. But the Pfizer and Moderna trials showed improvement in this area.

When patients bring these concerns to Tubuo, she acknowledges this very valid worry.

“Yes, this is a part of our history, but now we have to move forward with science. We have to participate in the studies and make sure that we understand the technology,” she said.

She then gives them a copy of the demographics of the trial cohorts. While the proportion of Black participants in the Pfizer and Moderna trials was slightly smaller (9.8% and 9.7%, respectively) than the proportion of the general population that is Black (12.3%), both Pfizer and Moderna enrolled far more diverse cohorts of patients than many other drug trials do.

Tubuo also mentions that, at one point, Moderna stalled enrollment to ensure diversity among participants. In a further effort to represent Black people, she tells patients, Moderna enlisted all four of the country’s historically black medical schools—Meharry Medical College, Howard University College of Medicine, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science—as trial sites. “That tells you that they wanted to include us in this study,” Tubuo said. “This isn’t something that they’re only testing in other people and then trying to give to us. We are included in this study, too.”

A little persistence and hand-holding

It often takes many encounters with a patient before they decide to get the vaccine. “If they say no, just keep trying. Give them time, hold their hand, and explain how the vaccine works in language that they can understand.”

While Tubuo gives time to patients in the store, she doesn’t want to waste time distributing vaccines. She has partnered with numerous organizations to offer clinics, including homeless shelters, churches, free clinics, workplaces, and minority-owned businesses. “That’s important because a lot of hesitancy is coming from minority communities,” she said.

But, she adds, “My efforts are as broad as can be because vaccine hesitancy is beyond race. We have a lot of vaccine hesitancy in the white community as well.”

Tubuo and her staff vaccinated people who are homeless or undocumented on a walk-in basis for several days across several weeks at free clinics. She has also vaccinated congregants at a local church after Saturday and Sunday mass.

“Vaccines don’t belong in the fridge at my pharmacy,” she said. “Vaccines belong in people’s arms.”