Pharmacist at FQHC Says You’ll Never Know Someone’s “Why” Until You Ask

Pharmacist Jangus Whitner (left) with PrimaryOne Health pharmacists and student pharmacists from The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

Pharmacist Jangus Whitner (left) with PrimaryOne Health pharmacists and student pharmacists from The Ohio State University College of Pharmacy at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

Late last fall, Jangus Whitner, PharmD, was seeing patients at PrimaryOne Health, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in Columbus, Ohio. In the waiting room, two socially distanced lines led to the front desk. In one, people waited to check in for their vaccine appointments. In the other, patients waited to sign in for regular medical appointments.

As Whitner passed through the area, he saw a Hispanic woman who didn’t appear to be in either line. Addressing her in Spanish, he asked, “Are you waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine?”

Quickly, the woman replied, “No, I don’t have the money for a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Whitner, who is Director of Pharmacy Services at PrimaryOne Health, was astonished that nearly a year after the first COVID-19 vaccines became available in the United States, someone may still not know that the vaccines are available at no cost.

“It’s important not to judge anyone who has decided not to get the vaccine yet,” Whitner said. “You never know why they may not have gotten it. It could be something as simple as not knowing it is free. And maybe that was just due to a language barrier.”

After learning that she could receive the vaccine at no cost, the patient had no further reservations. She got it that day and came back later with her husband and several older relatives, who also wanted to be vaccinated.

Throughout the vaccine rollout, Whitner has seen time and again that clinicians can’t guess with accuracy why someone is unvaccinated: they need to ask.

As the oldest and largest FQHC in central Ohio, PrimaryOne Health stepped up to the plate for central Ohio’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. They partnered with the governor’s office and the Ohio National Guard to conduct mass vaccination events. Other partners included the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging, the Ohio Association of Community Health Centers, local long-term care facilities, churches, and other organizations.

“We went to the zip codes and into communities that historically have had inequitable access to health care,” Whitner said.

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Vaccine clinics organized by PrimaryOne Health included walk-up, drive-through, pop-up, and appointment-based events. They happened in the parking lots of PrimaryOne Health locations, at long-term care facilities, churches, other free clinics, and even on farms.

“We did pop-up events at 7:00 AM before the farm workers went out into the field in order to capture the migrant worker population,” Whitner said.

At each of these vaccination events during the last year and a half, Whitner has approached patients with open-mindedness. The diverse reasons patients have for holding out on getting the vaccine frequently surprise him.

A woman whose close relative had died of COVID-19 was held back by survivor guilt. “She was sad that she had the opportunity to get the vaccine, but her family member, who had passed away from COVID-19, had not been able to,” Whitner explained. “That’s why it was several months into the vaccine rollout before she was ready.”

Whitner’s advice for pharmacists as they continue to try to instill vaccine confidence in the remaining members of their communities is simple: “Lead with compassion. Don’t assume you know why someone isn’t vaccinated. To this day, I bet there are still people who don’t have a good handle on the benefits of the vaccine or who think it costs money.”

Resources to Answer Common Questions about COVID-19 vaccine, ways to Reach Diverse Communities, and Community Outreach Tools are available at APhA’s Vaccine Confident microsite.