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How Nebraska is Working to Combat Vaccine Hesitancy Among Minority Groups

Close of of hands wearing purple hospital gloves holding a small box reading "Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine"

Vaccine hesitancy is one of the biggest obstacles on the path to herd immunity, and a lack of access to information can be a big part of that hesitancy. The Office of Health Disparities and Health Equity, part of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, is working to ensure racial and ethnic minority communities have access to accurate information about COVID-19 and its vaccine through community partnerships and translation services. Courtney Bierman spoke to office administrator Josie Rodriguez for more.

A lot of existing coverage of vaccine hesitancy in the United States is largely about ethnic minority communities and vaccine hesitancy there, but is there comprehensive data that suggests that rates in those communities are higher than in white communities?

I don't know that there's comprehensive data yet. I know that there's a lot of organizations that are doing surveys around vaccine hesitancy. So I know that UNMC right now is working on one, and at the state we did work on one. It was more market research than [actual] research. But that did give us a glimpse into letting us know that there is a vaccine hesitancy, I will say, among a lot of [the] general population, as well as racial and ethnic minorities.

A lot of the issue seems to be access to information as well. I know your job at Nebraska DHHS is making sure that information gets out to communities whose primary language is not English. Can you talk about your role in that?

Since COVID started, we have been really trying to get information, education out to various communities and different languages. So on our DHHS website we have information about COVID itself, and then we have information about the vaccine. And we've put that in the top languages here in Nebraska, but we also have a variety of other languages. So we want to make sure that our Latinx community has the resources they need, but also all of our other communities in Nebraska as well. So one of the things that our office is trying to do is, we know that there is vaccine hesitancy, and we're trying to provide information to them in a variety of different ways. 


One of the ways that we're doing that, Courtney, is through town halls. So we've been doing a variety of town halls in various languages, you know, we've done for the African American community, we've done a few, we've done some for our Latino or Latinx community, also for our Karen community. Not very many people in Nebraska know that we have a high Karen community here in Nebraska, and in Omaha, and Lincoln and various parts of the state as well. We've done two town hall events in their language, and we've had interpreters. What we are hearing is that there's a lot of rumors out there and myths out there, be it either on Facebook or other social media avenues — and what we're trying to do is dispel those myths. So we bring on somebody from the state, which is usually myself or even others working in the vaccine area, and then we bring on someone from the health department, and then we have on physicians, because we want to be able to dispel a lot of those myths at a variety of levels. 


We have seen that people hear that there's a chip in the vaccine. We've heard that, you know, it could cause infertility. We have heard that the vaccine was made too quick. So there's just mistrust out there. And what we're trying to do is offer them the opportunity to ask those questions that they have — and have us give the answers by people that are actually working in the area, and physicians that are experienced and knowledgeable about the vaccine.


Are we seeing any different trends in Nebraska about vaccine hesitancy or acceptance compared to the rest of the country?


I would say it's probably the same. You know, we are hearing at a national level that there's vaccine hesitancy, so we are still trying to get the word out. We are sharing our information about our vaccine portal. And we have a COVID hotline that we're trying to share with our community so that they know where to register if people aren't able to go to the website. Because we know that sometimes people don't have access to a computer, or access to maybe even read in English. The vaccine website is in Spanish but not in other languages yet, and so we have a vaccine hotline as well. And we tell individuals that they can call that hotline and they can get assistance in whatever language they need. So I would say it's the same as throughout the country.


A lot of this is related to a mistrust of the medical system. What is the role of structural racism in this?


I would say it has a big play in it, because you have the Tuskegee Experiments and smallpox stuff with Native Americans. That's what it's about, is trust. Because they've seen all these things happen in the past, and systematically, yes, there are systems that have been set up that haven't brought as many resources to all the populations, and so that has played a big factor in it.


What is the role of community partnerships in the work you do?


It's key, because we would not be able to do these town halls [without] our community partnerships. We align ourselves with those community-based organizations that work with populations directly. So I would say partnerships is the number one resource we have available to us to get this information now. Not only with community-based organizations, but with public health departments and hospital systems, our clinics ummc our colleges of public health and other universities because they're working with a variety of different individuals from the community to other professionals. So it takes partnerships to do all this work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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