In September 2020, nearly two dozen researchers throughout Florida quickly came together to address COVID-19-health disparities in areas disproportionately affected by the pandemic. But before they could organize vaccine drives and share COVID-19 resources, they decided to meet with local residents who had been hit the hardest: health care workers, farm workers, and people from Latino and African American communities.
The mission: to listen. And listen carefully.
“One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is this concept of meeting people where they are,” said Jessica Otero, a community health education specialist and a member of the NIH Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) research team in Florida.
When the Florida team met with members from Latino communities, they learned many people were scared. They were afraid of being deported, afraid of what it would mean for their family if they – the sole provider for their family – got sick, and afraid the vaccine would change their DNA. Many families didn’t have health insurance or primary care providers to turn to as a resource.
To address these challenges, Otero, who also coordinates research at the Center for Health Equity and Community Engagement Research at Mayo Clinic, and Jeremy Thomas Lanier, a public health information officer with the Florida Department of Health in Osceola County, hosted events at safe spaces in Central Florida, like churches and neighborhood community centers. They tapped epidemiologists and physicians to answer questions in Spanish. And those who attended left with face masks, hand sanitizer, and other health resources, such as vaccine appointments. One woman who attended an event in Kissimmee called five of her friends and encouraged everyone to get vaccinated together – the next day.
Otero can relate to that enthusiasm. “When I hear good news, I share it with people in my community,” she said. “We’ve really seen that with people coming to these events.”
To maintain that momentum, the Florida researchers recruited trusted messengers, such as local pastors, to share the best health resources and information with other communities. “We want to counteract misinformation about COVID-19, understand barriers to care, and promote minority participation in vaccine and therapeutic clinical trials,” explained Olveen Carrasquillo, M.D., M.P.H., principal investigator of the Florida CEAL team and chief of general internal medicine at the University of Miami Health System.
Over the past several months, the CEAL team has hosted 90 events throughout the state, including webinars, panel discussions, and vaccine drives. And others are happening soon, including an Orlando-area community forum about COVID-19 vaccines, to be held with members of the African American community.
In the meantime, personalized COVID-19 fact sheets, videos, and social media messages have been reaching thousands of residents through community partners, such as nonprofits, food banks, churches, and community health workers.
“COVID has been an all hands-on-deck effort,” Otero shared. “No one organization can do this on their own.”