A $250,000 grant given to Creighton University’s Center for Promoting Health and Health Equity will be used to educate minority populations in Omaha about the COVID-19 vaccine.
The center aims to communicate trusted information about the vaccine to Black, Latino, Maya and Native American populations in Omaha using community partners, flyers, ads and more.
The money from the Douglas County Health Department will go toward training community health advocates, said Dr. Sade Kosoko-Lasaki, associate vice provost for health sciences and director of CPHHE.
CPHHE used a previous grant, awarded in July 2020, to train community health advocates on ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
When vaccines were approved for emergency use, the center applied for a second grant to get information out about the vaccine.
“This was all to reduce the prevalence of morbidity and mortality from COVID in the minority population,” Kosoko-Lasaki said.
A partner of CPHHE, Doris Lassiter, described the effort as a “community classroom,” where advocates are trained on chronic disease, COVID-19, the COVID-19 vaccine, health information privacy laws and navigating the healthcare system.
“It lends itself to many other opportunities to educate a specific population,” Lassiter said, “and this population [includes] folks who are predominantly African American who face chronic diseases.”
She said diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, conditions which are all identified by the CDC to lead to an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, are especially prevalent among minority populations in Omaha.
“We look at health equities from a different perspective,” Lassiter said. “We've been looking at racism issues, institutional racism, systemic racism. We are educating people who want to talk about the issues of the past.”
A total of 258,244 vaccine doses had been administered in Douglas County as of March 23, but 77.9% of vaccine recipients were white, according to the county COVID-19 dashboard.
Only 5.1% of vaccine dose recipients in Douglas County are Black. The rates in Hispanic and Native populations are even lower, at 4.9% and 0.4% respectively.
These trends are similar across Nebraska.
“This is beyond a political issue, but we also have to deal with the institutional racism associated with all situations,” Lassiter said. “COVID did shine a light more on the health inequalities that exist.”
Both Kosoko-Lasaki and Lassiter pointed to past abuses such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study as leading causes of vaccine hesitancy among minority populations.
“We acknowledged, yes, those things did happen. But the fact of the matter is that we have a solution. And the solution is the vaccine that's going to save our lives,” Lassiter said. “But we can't deny what happened is why people might be a little afraid.”
There is hesitancy around the flu vaccine and other vaccines in minority communities, Kosoko-Lasaki said.
“Some individuals also talk about the short period with which the [COVID-19] vaccine was approved,” she said. “We have to help people to understand that, yes, it usually takes about two years to approve a vaccine and this one was approved within nine months, but it still went through the approval process with the FDA.”
Another challenge is the political connection and misinformed rhetoric about the vaccine.
“We are training our community health ambassadors, our community health advocates, to dispel those myths out in the community, in their churches, at the Omaha Housing Authority,” said Lassiter, who is the training coordinator and coordinator of faith-based communities.
“Our faith-based health ambassadors are on it,” Lassiter said, “and because they know the population so well, they are a trusted source in the community.”
In addition to paying people for their time, the grant money will also be used to fund messaging and communication to promote the vaccine, said Dr. Richard Brown, the chair of the CPHHE and director of communication.
“One of the unique things about what we're doing is that we’re reducing all of the complicated information about COVID-19 vaccinations to simple slogans that resonate with the population and that are easy to remember and that people can use to encourage people to get the vaccine when it becomes available,” Brown said.
Slogans such as “Avoid COVID-19, take the vaccine” or “Don’t wait, vaccinate” will appear on flyers and bus ads, he said.
The center will also use newsletters, posters, banners, social media and even music to share information about the vaccine.
Brown said the center provided lyrics and are working with local artists to promote the information in rap music.
“Music is the universal language. Placing messages in music and using slogans is very important,” Brown said.
“We are very proud of the work that we have done to provide information and education about health disparities and specifically about this pandemic and COVID-19,” he said. “We are a trusted source and a source that is relied on by the minority community.”
After distributing this information to the community, Kosoko-Lasaki said the biggest challenge remains actually getting the vaccine.
“There’s still not enough vaccines in Omaha to go around,” she said.
While there are some clinics in North and South Omaha, including the sites at the Charles Drew Health Center; the OneWorld Community Health Center; the Fred LeRoy Health and Wellness Center; and the one on Creighton’s campus, transportation to these clinics is still a barrier.
“Some of the individuals may not have transportation,” and there will be some hesitancy about coming to Creighton’s campus and waiting in long lines, Kosoko-Lasaki said. “So we need to have more sites. Even if we have more testing sites, we need to have more vaccination sites.”
She said Creighton and the Douglas County Health Department should consider providing transportation for community members while more vaccine sites are being set up.
“We have not been asked to provide transportation to our clinic,” said Tricia Sharrar, vice provost for academic administration and operations. “I know that there have been conversations about clinics and the availability of clinics in North Omaha, and I thought that transportation may have been a piece of that.”
A spokesperson at Douglas County Health Department was contacted for this article, but an interview could not be scheduled before the Creightonian’s print deadline.