Academic Pharmacist Brings Vaccines Into the Comfort Zones of Underserved Communities

Pharmacist Preeti Kotha at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic set up at Brown Memorial Temple in Pomona, California.

Pharmacist Preeti Kotha at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic set up at Brown Memorial Temple in Pomona, California.

When Preeti Kotha, PharmD, arrived at Garey High School in Pomona, California, at 7 AM to set up for a 9 AM COVID-19 vaccine clinic, the line of patients already wrapped around the building. Although it sounds like a scene during the bustling first month of the initial rollout, the vaccine had already been available for more than 8 months at that point.

Members of the predominantly Hispanic population “were comfortable going to the high school in their community to get the vaccine, but they weren’t willing to leave the community to get the vaccine in places where it had already been available for months,” Kotha said.

For many months after the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, a great number of people in underserved communities remained hesitant about leaving their comfort zone.

That day at the Garey High School vaccination clinic, Kotha, who is Director of Pharmacy Services and Operations at Western University of Health Sciences (WesternU) College of Pharmacy, and a team of immunizers vaccinated nearly 1,000 people in only 4 hours.

In June 2021, WesternU College of Pharmacy and Brown Memorial Temple, an African American church, hosted a Juneteenth celebration at the church, which included food trucks, entertainment, and 10 health-related booths. The coordinators decided to include a COVID-19 vaccination booth at the Juneteenth event rather than host a dedicated vaccine clinic in the hope of attracting vaccine-contemplative African American community members who might be won over.

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Participants won prizes for visiting every booth at the event, which drew even those who didn’t want a COVID-19 vaccine to visit the WesternU booth. There, Kotha and her team elicited questions from vaccine-contemplative visitors and led them in a game of “Fact or Myth” in which the players determined whether statements about the vaccine were true or false. Kotha vaccinated some 50 people that day who might not have otherwise had plans to get the shot.

Led by Kotha, pharmacists from WesternU also brought vaccines to Home for Hope, a homeless shelter in Pomona located just a few blocks from campus.

“I think it made a big difference that we are local. We are not outsiders from some other place. We are just blocks away,” Kotha said.

As Kotha and her colleagues vaccinated around 50 shelter dwellers, a man in a wheelchair sat off to the side warning people that the vaccine would kill them. An older African American man, he cited government experiments on minorities as a reason not to trust this new vaccine.

Unfazed by the man’s commentary, the nurse on the vaccination team engaged the older man throughout the duration of the clinic. They talked about politics, Black Lives Matter, and the man’s hometown. The nurse gently shifted the conversation toward the vaccine, explaining how it worked and what makes it safe. Eventually, the man said, “I’m going to think about this.”

“When we came back the next week,” Kotha said, “he was among the first people who got the vaccine.”

Kotha says the team of immunizers might not have gained the trust of any of the shelter residents had they not come from the same community. The added interaction between the man and the nurse was what tipped the scales for him.

“It was that connection that moved him from a no to a yes,” Kotha shared.

Community Outreach Tools and resources to Tailor Your Outreach to prepare for COVID-19 vaccine outreach to specific populations are available at APhA’s Vaccine Confident microsite.