Pharmacist Partners With Faith-Based Communities to Provide COVID-19 Vaccinations

Ritesh Patel, PharmD, prepares vaccines before a clinic at Raleigh Charter High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Ritesh Patel, PharmD, prepares vaccines before a clinic at Raleigh Charter High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

As soon as COVID-19 vaccine shipments started to arrive in North Carolina, Ritesh Patel, PharmD, knew that his pharmacy was not the place to administer the shots. The outpatient pharmacy located inside Eastern Carolina Medical Center in the town of Benson would pose all kinds of logistical problems. “The parking alone would be a nightmare,” Patel said. The last thing he wanted to do was create additional barriers for people who might already be hesitant to get the vaccine.

“I wanted to make sure the vaccine reached all the folks who really need it,” Patel said. The aim was to vaccinate the people of Benson and the surrounding rural community, the Research Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill), and parts of the neighboring state of Virginia, where Patel owns another pharmacy that also received vaccines.

The solution was to bring the vaccine to the people rather than expect them to come to him. Patel and his pharmacist colleagues understood that not everyone would be reached in the same way.

Patel and his team partnered with area churches in both Benson, NC, and parts of Virginia. Pastors emailed congregants and knocked on their doors to inform them of upcoming vaccine clinics at their houses of worship.

“People listen to pastors,” Patel said. “After they emailed and went door-to-door and then opened up their churches, we had people busting down the doors. We gave 2,000, 3,000, and 4,000 shots a day.”

To reach local residents who originally hail from India and other South Asian countries, Patel hosted vaccine clinics at Hindu temples as well.

While faith-based organizations have a wide reach in this part of the country, Patel knew they didn’t capture everyone. That’s why he also collaborated with the local housing authority. Social workers from the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority in Virginia went door-to-door to the homes in their jurisdiction. In 24 hours, they scheduled 1,200 vaccine appointments.

Patel also called local physician groups to ask about homebound patients. “We said, ‘Let us know who’s homebound, and one of the pharmacists can stop by on our way home.’ We’d vaccinate four or five people a night that way,” he said.

Still, Patel saw where he could do more. He noticed that a large proportion of the people getting vaccinated in Benson were coming in from out of town. That meant that there could still be hesitancy among local residents.

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Patel gathered some high school student volunteers to visit local businesses and offer people that day’s remaining doses of vaccine. “We didn’t get any takers,” Patel said. But outreach like this gave him a read on the concerns of community members. Patel heard a wide range of reasons why people had decided to hold off getting vaccinated.

“One person said, ‘My child is not eligible to get the vaccine, so I don’t feel right getting it,’ which was a new one to me,” Patel said. The pharmacist explained to the person that getting vaccinated would help protect unvaccinated children.

The diverse concerns of area residents emphasized for Patel how pharmacists and other health care providers must address vaccine hesitancy.

“You have to listen to them and find out what each individual’s specific hesitation is, and then answer the right questions,” he said.

To date, Patel’s efforts have led to the vaccination of 40,000 people in the states of North Carolina and Virginia.

Sonya Collins
April 2021