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How UICOMP Is Leading The Charge On Tackling Vaccine Hesitancy In Peoria

Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio

Surging overall demand for the COVID-19 vaccine may mask hesitancy among certain populations, particularly among communities of color.That's why Dr. Abeer AlMalaji, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria, is coordinating a survey in Peoria County to find -- and address -- the concerns that may make some think twice before rolling up their sleeve.

Tim Shelley: So you're kind of doing a survey to figure out where in the community there's vaccine hesitancy. Tell me a little bit about how that's being done.

Dr. Abeer AlMajali: Yeah. So basically, I mean, from polls that have been done in several parts of the country, we are realizing that there are certain patient populations that seemed more hesitant to receive the vaccine than others. And the trend has repeatedly been that it's underserved populations, or populations that have poor access to health, and populations of people of color.

And we are especially worried about that, because, you know, as per what I've been seeing at the hospital with our COVID infections, some of the poor outcomes are also coming from populations of people of color. And I mean, it's no surprise it is, because of that poor access to health and many other health care disparities that are already in place.

So we basically wanted this survey. It has already been done in Chicago, and we wanted to mirror the same thing here to find out which populations are hesitant to receive the vaccine.

Because you can extrapolate data from other parts of the country. But I'm not sure that's exactly fair. Just because a certain patient population is less likely to get the vaccine somewhere in Boston, it's not necessarily the same here in Peoria. So we wanted to have the survey done here to make sure which patient populations are especially hesitant here in Peoria to get the vaccine. And the reasons behind that.

We make a lot of assumptions in medicine, and especially with everything going on, a lot of assumptions are being made as to why some people may or may not want to get the vaccine. But I think you need to go to the source and ask people, 'What is the the main reason you are hesitant to get the vaccine?'

And if it's a modifiable factor that we can work on and actually help people change, then that's really the hope. If we find out what the reasons are, then we can work on modifying those factors and get as many people vaccinated as possible.

TS: So tell me how you actually conduct the surveys. Is it phone, Internet, door-to-door? How are you actually reaching out to people in the middle of this pandemic?

AA: So I know a lot of it is going to be electronic. So they're going to be emailing people, and they're going to be able to answer the surveys and send it back electronically.

But you can't reach everyone electronically, right? So there has been talk of just door-to-door, delivering surveys and having people fill them out, reaching out to community centers, churches, places where people might still be frequenting and going and handing out those surveys and getting as many filled out as possible.

So it's really kind of multifaceted, but I think the main way is going to be electronically.

TS: Once you've done the survey, and you've collected results, you talked a little bit about those action steps of, if there's something that we can talk to somebody about, and help them feel more comfortable with it. So, what are the actions you'll take as a result of whatever results you get with the survey?

AA: Yeah, I think this is where the survey is going to be really helpful, because I don't think there's one answer to everyone's hesitancy. Each person probably has a different reason they're hesitant, and the survey really addresses that pretty nicely with the questions that are on there, in terms of, you know, why are you hesitant.

And hopefully, depending on the reason we're going to be able to individualize our approach with different people. If it's something like, a health care worker told me it's dangerous, or I'm going to have a lot of side effects, then if we know that person does trust health care workers. Having them re-address that with their doctor, maybe having those concerns re-addressed if it's something like, I heard from someone they got it and they had severe side effects, again, presenting people with the data and telling what's true.

So I think it's going to be very individualized, depending on what each cluster of people, or what each individual gives us as a cause for their hesitancy to get the vaccine, I think the most efficient way is probably going to be talk to your doctor or health care provider, right? Because hopefully, if people, you know, have trust in their doctors or health care providers, and the answer is, you know, science-related or science-based, then that can be very easily cleared by their health care provider or doctor.

But that's really the reason for the surveys. Are we forgetting about some common reasons that people might have, and trying to find creative ways of addressing those doubts.

TS: So what's the timeline? When are you going to be collecting those responses, compiling them, and coming up with some kind of action plan to go from there?

AA: So I know that we are in the process of starting to send out the surveys. We still haven't had any responses. I suspect, obviously, the electronic version of the survey is going to be the fastest to get back with responses.

It's really going to be about you know, people who are not able to reached electronically. If we're going to hand them out or give them to their community centers, or churches or institutions, those are probably going to take the most time.

But I think those are probably critical, because those are some of the people who probably have issues with access to health care, and having someone to talk to and get the answers that they need. So it may be a little bit longer to get at least those back.

But I think as we start, I think especially the electronic phases, we start getting those back, we should have a clearer idea of who is hesitant, why, and we can start addressing them as they come. So I'm not sure we have a definite timeline for you. But I know that as soon as we start sending out that electronic ones, we will start getting quick answers. And we do have two versions, one in English and one in Spanish, to try and reach as many people as possible.

TS: Was there really anything else you wanted people to know about this survey efforts or about addressing vaccine hesitancy here in Peoria?

AA: I want people to feel heard. I think that there is a big problem with with certain populations, or individuals feeling that throughout all of this, they haven't been.

That may be either the medical community or the overall response hasn't been transparent with them, or that we're not hearing their concerns, or that someone is hiding something from them.

And we're really trying our hardest first to dismiss that thought, because at least as a medical community, we're really trying to get as many people as possible. And, the end goal is both for people's individual safety and the safety of our community as a whole. We're all desperate to get back to sort of a normal state. Right?

And I think that, you know, there's been talk about herd immunity, and this is the nice safe way of getting some sort of herd immunity. And this is what I want. What I tell people is what you're heard. If you have concerns, don't dismiss this survey, fill it out, let us know what your specific concerns are, so we can address them.

And I think that's the main message we'd like to get out there, is that there's no ulterior motive. We all want to get back to hopefully a more normal state and, and kind of get over this terrible year that we've all had.


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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.