How Initial Struggles Led to Major Success for Underserved Communities in Arkansas

Pharmacist Allie Staton with a shipment of COVID-19 vaccines.

Pharmacist Allie Staton with a shipment of COVID-19 vaccines.

When Allie Staton, PharmD, took the CDC-funded role of Vaccine Confidence Strategist for the Arkansas Immunization Action Coalition, she expected to bring the COVID-19 curriculum and toolkit, created by the Arkansas Department of Health with help from Staton and other partners, into underserved and hard-to-reach communities, where she would teach local residents about the virus and dispel commonly held myths and misconceptions about vaccination.

But that didn’t happen the way she envisioned.

Every time Staton tried to schedule a presentation, whether at a community center, church, or school, she struggled to connect with the right contact person; or the event would be scheduled and then canceled; or she’d show up to find an audience of just one or two attendees.

“I was struggling to get myself and this information into communities across the state,” Staton said.

Yet, those struggles came with a lesson.

“The way that I was trying to do it really wasn’t working,” Staton said. “The communities I was trying to reach didn’t know anything about me. They had no reason to trust me. However, I knew there were already trusted people in those communities who could be hosting those workshops and presenting the information that we had put together.”

Staton learned about CDC’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) grant that had provided funding for pharmacies and clinics in Arkansas to hire community health workers to educate their communities about COVID-19. Staton contacted the REACH grantee organizations and asked if they would allow her to help train their community health workers. The answer was a resounding, “Yes!”

REACH-funded community health workers were required to attend monthly training sessions via Zoom videoconferencing. During two of these sessions, Staton met with the estimated 130 trainees to prepare them to educate community members on the COVID-19 virus and vaccines and to answer all the questions that local residents might bring to the facilities where the health workers were stationed. She taught from the toolkit that she helped create and walked the trainees through the most common themes that drive patients’ concerns about the virus and vaccine as well as how to address those questions. Staton also shared her struggles connecting with communities and emphasized the importance of their role as trusted community health workers.

The toolkit provides lay terminology to explain how vaccines are manufactured; what an mRNA vaccine is; how it does and doesn’t differ from traditional vaccines; how a vaccine gets approval; and how COVID-19 vaccines managed to get approved so quickly, among other prevalent issues.

When Staton offered to mail toolkits to the community health workers so that they could refer to this helpful resource at community events, their response provided a metric for the program’s success.

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“We had hundreds of toolkits printed. I sent almost all of them out across the state,” Staton said. “Knowing that community health workers were asking for them and using them was great feedback. It helped them feel more confident when they had the toolkit to refer to.”

While it would be difficult to quantify how many people in Arkansas got vaccinated solely because of their interactions with a REACH-funded community health worker and to what degree Staton’s intervention made that possible, the pharmacist knows that she and the workers she trained made a difference.

“It definitely led to more vaccinations because the community health workers felt a lot more confident going out into their communities and talking to people about the vaccine. They felt more prepared.”

Community Outreach Tools and resources to help Educate Your Health Care Team to Discuss the Importance of COVID-19 Vaccination with community members are available at APhA’s Vaccine Confident microsite.