Pharmacist Builds Trust and Expands Vaccine Access to Community’s Most Vulnerable

Pharmacist Renee Riddix-Hilliard prior to a COVID-19 vaccine clinic hosted by Rite Aid at an addiction treatment center in Baltimore, Maryland.

Pharmacist Renee Riddix-Hilliard prior to a COVID-19 vaccine clinic hosted by Rite Aid at an addiction treatment center in Baltimore, Maryland.

As co-director of the Health and Wellness Ministry at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, Renee Riddix-Hilliard, PharmD, got started early educating congregants on the importance of vaccination against COVID-19. She built on the trust she had earned as a pharmacist and lifelong member of the church.

While Riddix-Hilliard knew she had convinced the congregants of the importance of the vaccine and felt assured that they were willing to get it, the problem was access.

“Their doctors were telling them to just go to their local pharmacy to get the [COVID-19] vaccine, but the pharmacy was telling them that they had to make an appointment online, but they weren’t able to or didn’t know how,” Riddix-Hilliard said.

The 200 members of the predominantly African American congregation, which skews toward older adults, didn’t have the technical skills to navigate online appointment scheduling. It required repeated attempts and constant screen-refreshing—and some members did not have internet and computer access at all. That’s when Riddix-Hilliard decided to single-handedly eliminate this barrier to vaccination for the church’s congregants.

The pharmacist collected the full name, birth date, and the number of miles each congregant was willing to travel, and she set up nearly 200 vaccination appointments at various sites available around the Baltimore community.

Riddix-Hilliard soon identified another population that might find technology to be an insurmountable barrier to vaccination—people who patronize the food pantry she directs through her church. As a pandemic safety measure, the food pantry shifted from a walk-in to a drive-through model. Rather than allowing clients to enter the building to select the food they needed, a volunteer would bring a bag of groceries to their car.

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Community pharmacists can employ individual outreach efforts to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine with their unvaccinated patients.

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When Riddix-Hilliard greeted pantry clients at their cars, she took the opportunity to talk with them about the COVID-19 vaccine. “At first, they didn’t know me as a trusted health care professional. I was just the person who helped them with food insecurity. But I worked on earning their trust as a health care professional and then they started to see me in that way,” she said.

As more and more of the food pantry clients agreed to get vaccinated, Riddix-Hilliard used her phone or theirs to book appointments for them right at their cars. Between church members and food pantry clients, the pharmacist booked more than 400 COVID-19 vaccination appointments for members of her community.

In addition to her work at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, Riddix-Hilliard also spent the first year of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout as a contracted immunizer with a Rite-Aid in Baltimore, Maryland. From her experience in a community pharmacy, Riddix-Hilliard believes the targeted, individualized approach she took to eliminate barriers for one patient at a time may be the key to vaccinating the last holdouts in every community. While it is time consuming, she suggests community pharmacists identify patients who have not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine and speak to them individually the next time they pick up their prescriptions.

“Pharmacists are the most trusted health care providers, but sometimes [patients] have to press a button on a device just to receive counseling from them,” Riddix-Hilliard said. “But if patients could hear directly from their pharmacists…about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine, I think it would really make a difference.”

Resources to help Discuss the Importance of COVID-19 Vaccination, Tailor Your Outreach during patient conversations, and Community Outreach Tools are available at APhA’s Vaccine Confident microsite.