AUSTIN, Texas (KXAN) — Mia Greer has been trying to talk to anyone who will listen.

“I will scream from the rooftops to please, please, please help us help you. Get the vaccine! Help us, help you, save your family members and your loved ones,” Greer said. “We just don’t want any more deaths, just because we have all these misunderstandings and these feelings of distrust.”

Community Coalition for Health providing information and answering questions about the COVID-19 vaccine. (Courtesy: Mia Greer)

Greer who leads Community Coalition for Health, a nonprofit which focuses on education and awareness, was behind a town hall last Tuesday in North Austin about vaccine hesitancy.

The discussion at the Rock ATX Church was a way to bring in health experts and build trust among the community. 

“The hesitancy has a lot to do with Black and brown skin and trust of systems,” Greer, who is also a registered nurse, explained. “There are so many beliefs about what we’re getting when we get the vaccine and the things that may be going into our systems. And are the people really trusting the people who give the vaccination because they feel they have let them down in the past.”

Personal and Complicated

Researchers in Central Texas have been studying vaccination choices and explained that the decision to get the vaccine can be personal and complicated. 

Dr. Emily Brunson, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Texas State University, is leading research with CommuniVax, a national coalition made up of educators, health leaders and advocates.

Her team has focused on Black and Hispanic communities which have seen disproportionate impacts from the pandemic. She said they found a common theme surrounding trust in medicine and public health.

“Because if you’re dealing with the situation where a community doesn’t trust that, for example, public health has their best interests at heart, it makes having a conversation about vaccination very difficult,” explained Dr. Brunson.

She said looking at the Black communities in Maryland, Alabama and Virginia it goes back to historical and more recent inequities and biases in health care.

“In Maryland, for example, one of the respondents, you know, came back early on in the pandemic, when they were talking about vaccination,” explained Dr. Brunson. “‘So, you know, you haven’t cared about us now. Like, we’ve come to you with diabetes, you know, concerns with all of these other concerns that our community has, and we’ve been ignored. So, why do you care about us now with COVID?'”

She said in other communities, there have been questions about “if they’re getting vaccine A versus vaccine, B, are they given vaccine A because it’s a lesser vaccine?”

Vaccine Accessibility

CommuniVax teams across the country have also looked at access to the vaccine and if it was easily available for everyone to get the shots. 

Dr. Brunson said even now as younger children are eligible to get vaccinated access will be significant. 

“If you have a single working mother, who is working 60 hours a week, and the children go to school, and then they might have some after school care and other things that’s it’s a big ask to take them to the doctor’s office to get a vaccination,” Dr. Brunson explained. “It really comes down to, you know, thinking about locally, what, what needs to be done, and in terms of communication, but that’s only part of the story because if you’re dealing with trust issues, there’s not a messaging campaign that will fix that. And so it’s really thinking about how can we build trust.”

One way includes CommuniVax’s efforts to spread awareness. Dr. Brunson said they have shared research with members of Congress from Texas and local health officials. 

A spokesperson with Austin Public Health explained that they are open to reviewing the study from CommuniVax involving other states to better understand community needs at a local level. 

APH said they have also been surveying parents, childcare facilities and schools – and hosting virtual feedback sessions on vaccine experiences. 

The spokesperson explained that APH is also reaching neighborhoods that do not have mobile access to clinics or pharmacies with its Mobile Vaccine Program. The mobile events are staffed with health workers to answer questions. 

“We understand that while developing culturally relevant PSAs is important, having one-on-one conversations is proving to be successful in addressing individual concerns that stem from long systemic issues with lack of access to private healthcare,” said the spokesperson.

Just in November, APH’s call center made over 5,000 calls to ZIP codes with low vaccination rates.

Building Trust

It’s those efforts that Greer said will make a difference. 

Her team goes into neighborhoods, barbershops, beauty salons and grocery stores trying to reach people and answer questions. 

Community Coalition for Health targets awareness in areas with lower vaccination rates. (Courtesy: Mia Greer)

She said that often common questions are more rooted in the Bible than science. 

“Want you to know the science and we also want you to know that that the Lord has given the scientists a way to combat this,” Greer explained. “You know, Jesus had a doctor with him. He had Luke. And so even Jesus himself had a doctor who came with him. And so he believed in science.”

At the town hall, Greer hoped the panel could ease vaccination fears. 

LaDaya Whitfield was among those who attended and wanted to hear from health care experts especially after her family fought COVID-19 in September. 

“I was very scared that I had caught COVID. All types of thoughts were running through my mind at that moment. I didn’t know how it would affect me,” Whitfield said. 

She explained that it’s even more important to get the vaccine because of her children. She’s now waiting to see when she can get vaccinated since she’s recently recovered.  

“I didn’t know how my body would respond to it in any type of way. So, I was fearful at that time but due to me catching it and seeing what it did to my body I’m no longer hesitant,” said Whitfield.

In February, Greer is organizing another town hall focused on children and questions parents have about their little ones getting the shots. 

“Getting the vaccine is what is going to stop us from dying, it’s going to stop us from giving it to our neighbors, it’s going to stop us from giving it to our grandparents, it’s going to stop us from giving it to our children,” Greer said. “I just can’t see people dying because of the fear of a shot.”