NORTHEAST PENNSYLVANIA — Ever since the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available to eligible residents across the commonwealth, the Wright Center for Community Health has been working to quell the concerns of Northeast Pennsylvanians who remain hesitant about getting the shot. Just before the new year, the center received $75,000 in state funding in support of that mission.
Rural, conservative Pennsylvania has long stood out as a demographic more likely to express hesitancy toward the vaccine than other parts of the state, according to reports as early as March 2021, before PA opened up eligibility to the general public. More recently, Pennsylvania’s overall vaccination rate continues to lag behind the national average: Roughly 54 percent of Pennsylvanians have gotten fully vaccinated at press time, compared to about 63 percent of U.S. residents.
Wayne and Pike counties—both characterized by rural geographies, strong conservative values, and limited access to healthcare—have been hovering around the halfway point lately. At press time, Wayne had about 55 percent and Pike had just under 50 percent of residents vaccinated.
The Wright Center has utilized its 34-foot “medical clinic on wheels,” known as Driving Better Health (DBH), to deliver COVID shots to traditionally underserved urban communities and rural areas of NEPA. Robin Rosencrans, the practice manager for DBH, said that as she travels throughout the region, she finds misinformation is the top reason that people are resistant to getting inoculated.
“The number-one thing I see is misinformation. A lot of patients that we interact with, they’re just misinformed. They listen more to social media than science organizations,” Rosencrans said. “So we just try to educate, and some people just still don’t want to be vaccinated and there’s ones that end up getting vaccinated before they leave.”
Paul Krzywicki, the Wright Center’s public relations manager, said that a recent survey involving hundreds of regional medical providers about the driving forces of vaccine hesitancy revealed some common responses: the vaccine isn’t safe, COVID-19 is a hoax, it’s a political issue, the vaccine is too new and hasn’t been tested thoroughly, and the vaccine isn’t safe for pregnant women.
Cutting through those many layers of hesitancy or outright distrust is no simple task. Krzywicki said that there’s no single strategy that works better than the rest.
“We try to blanket our region with as much material [as possible] that will educate them on the efficacy of the vaccines, and the safety, and how it is one of the most-researched vaccines in the history of healthcare,” Krzywicki said, naming geotargeted social media posts, traditional media, advertising and word-of-mouth campaigns as some of the approaches they’ve used so far. “You’re not going to reach everybody just using one communication strategy.”
The center tried to build a sense of community around the vaccine, distributing stickers, posters and yard signs with phrases like “Team COVID Crusher” and “This house is vaxxed to the max,” with the image of the vaccination mascot.
Rosencrans said that since the clinic is on wheels and able to go into neighborhoods where access to accurate, scientific information is low, that allows for effective face-to-face education with residents.
“That’s why I love Driving Better Health, because when we are on the road, we have had people just riding their bike on a trail stop and talk to us when we’re at a pavilion, and they just want to ask questions,” she said. “Because a flyer gives you the information, but sometimes the patient has a question that can’t be answered by a flyer. So when I have a medical provider on the van… and they’re getting answers from a doctor, they feel a little better about the information.”
She added that the roaming unit is staffed with bilingual employees to help mitigate language barrier in areas where people are more comfortable speaking in Spanish than English.
Removing barriers to healthcare has been one of the Wright Center’s top priorities, beyond just responding to the outbreak of COVID-19, Krzywicki said. The DBH bus frequently visits school districts, senior living centers, homeless shelters and community gathering places to provide primary, preventive, pediatric and dental services, in addition to COVID-19 tests and vaccinations.
The low number of primary care facilities and the single hospital shared between Wayne and Pike counties—in addition to a gap in addiction and recovery services—prompted the Wright Center to open up a Hawley practice in recent years.
Rosencrans said that throughout the region, she encounters her fair share of people who remain hesitant or distrustful, either of the COVID shot or of vaccines in general. But she’s been encouraged by some success stories along the way as well. She recalled last month when a mother with three young children boarded the DBH unit, and spent 40 minutes with the employees, asking question after question about the vaccine, its efficacy and its safety. By the time they got off the bus, each of her kids had received their first dose.
“Education can make a difference,” Krzywicki said. “We’re trying to get through the misinformation out there, and just let everybody know our sole purpose is public health. And the vaccines have been proven to be effective, and they have been proven safe time and time again.”
More information about the Wright Center and its Driving Better Health unit is available online at https://www.thewrightcenter.org/driving-better-health.
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