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Sunday, June 4, 2023

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An SDSU nursing student prepares to vaccinate another student as part of training to volunteer to vaccinate the public. Photo: Frank Villalpondo An SDSU nursing student prepares to vaccinate another student as part of training to volunteer to vaccinate the public. Photo: Frank Villalpondo

CommuniVax: Engaging San Diego’s Latinx Community in Equitable COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

SDSU is part of a select national group that will synthesize community input for stakeholders to develop effective vaccination efforts.
By Padma Nagappan

With the nationwide push to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, San Diego State University anthropologists and public health experts have joined a national coalition to improve engagement with those within the underserved Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities.

It has become critical in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic to have these communities directly engaged in response efforts and receive culturally relevant, nuanced communications addressing their specific concerns.

In support of these communities, SDSU is one of six universities selected to help address these concerns as part of CommuniVax, a national coalition led by Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Texas State University, which will rely on grassroots input from several locations, including San Diego.

“What's really different here is that CommuniVax is not a 'myth busting' project or an effort at 'educational outreach,' but rather a bridge-building initiative that takes into account the knowledge  each community already has,” said Elisa Sobo, sociocultural anthropologist and chair of the Department of Anthropology. 

Sobo’s involvement in the coalition’s central working group led to SDSU being selected as a local site leader. The project will leverage the university’s deep roots within San Diego’s Latinx community through its Institute for Public Health, the cross-disciplinary partnership between anthropology and public health, and build on SDSU’s current efforts with contact tracing and testing under its Communities Fighting COVID! initiative.

“What CommuniVax is seeking to do is remedy mistrust, among other things, by strengthening each community's capacity to be an active part of the solution.” Sobo said.

Actionable Help for Communities in Need

The pandemic has had a disproportionate, devastating impact on historically underserved Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities. Yet longstanding and deep distrust, bias and barriers stand in the way of access to and acceptance of the vaccine. 

While vaccine hesitancy and skepticism is the focus of numerous conversations locally and nationally, current vaccine education and advocacy efforts are being met with increased concern from the very communities they are meant to reach. 

Sobo will collaborate  with the local lead and public health expert Noe Crespo, and collaborators Corinne McDaniels-Davidson and Susan Kiene, advising them and training outreach staff on deploying ethnographically informed data collection methods — minimally structured, participant-driven interviews and other novel methods. 

The team has completed phase one, which involved analyzing existing local census data for southern San Diego County, neighborhoods’ access to clinics, county vaccination efforts, and identifying key informants. Public health officials and leaders from Hispanic-serving organizations shared perspectives on the existing assets and needs going forward.

In phase two, which  launched this week and draws on Sobo’s anthropology expertise, SDSU graduate students serving as research assistants will seek out and synthesize valuable insights from San Diego’s Latinx community. They will collect local feedback on how to engage subgroups in vaccine conversations, how to work with them to address concerns, who should distribute the vaccine and who should administer it, and share this with public health departments, policymakers, community organizations and clinics, pharmacies and others. 

San Diego’s results will help inform the national workgroup on developing custom strategies for equitable and effective COVID-19 vaccination rollout in communities of color across the U.S.   

“What we are hearing is that information about vaccines is reaching our communities via Facebook and WhatsApp,” said Crespo, who will lead community efforts. “Misinformation spreads so quickly through those platforms, and people have a challenge figuring out what’s true and what’s not.”

Crespo’s expertise in health promotion and prevention research for chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and obesity will inform data collection efforts and strategies to reach a wide range of San Diego’s Latinx community members. 

Listen, learn, communicate

McDaniels-Davidson, an epidemiologist and director of the Institute of Public Health who co-leads SDSU’s contact tracing project, explained that SDSU interviewers will also ask people “what makes them feel confident about getting vaccinated, and piece together information on the types of outreach that will work best with marginalized communities.” 

Interviewers will also seek to determine what kinds of alternative viewpoints people hold that could hurt vaccine uptake. 

Eventually, outreach to individuals with ethnically nuanced vaccine communications will happen at several locations throughout the county including SDSU’s mobile COVID-19 testing sites, a project led by global health epidemiology professor Kiene. 

“We don’t just want to correct misinformation with facts, recognizing and giving voice to people’s concerns is important before trying to address those concerns,” Kiene said. “Especially given the historic abuse of minority groups, they do have well founded fears that have to be acknowledged. So this is about planting seeds and understanding community concerns and perspectives before deciding how to increase vaccine confidence.”
CommuniVax is supported by a $2 million grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation and is expected to wrap up this October.