ST. LOUIS — After getting their COVID-19 vaccine, Black residents will be given “golden tickets” to hand out to their unvaccinated friends and family that entitles the ticket holder to personal assistance in scheduling a dose for themselves.
The concierge ticket service is just one of several initiatives public health experts at Washington University will implement using $1.9 million in federal grants the university received to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates among Black residents of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Data shows a wide disparity in vaccination rates in the region. Some west St. Louis County ZIP code areas, which are predominantly white, have rates more than double those in Black-majority areas of north St. Louis and north St. Louis County areas.
“COVID-19 has impacted Blacks in St. Louis unequally in nearly all ways — sickness, death and financial strain,” said Matthew Kreuter, the public health professor leading the research. “We must do everything possible to avoid the same gaps when it comes to the protection of vaccinations.”
The grants include $1.4 million from the National Institutes of Health Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19 Disparities, and $500,000 from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The NIH award is part of $29 million that will go to 11 research teams across the nation already tapped last year to improve testing and treatment among minorities, and 10 new teams — including Washington University’s — to extend the effort to strengthen vaccine confidence and access.
The university’s Brown School will partner with the city and county health departments, Medicaid plan providers and organizations such as the United Way to develop and implement the initiatives.
The effort also includes assisting social service programs in their efforts to encourage vaccination, monitor and respond to common myths about the vaccines and inform Black residents about clinical trials. Hundreds of service programs across the city and county help vulnerable residents with housing, utilities, food and other needs. Many also want to help their clients learn about getting vaccinated but are already overwhelmed.
“They don’t have the bandwidth or the time to do that, or they may not have the know-how or the knowledge to do it,” Kreuter said. “All you have to do here is say, ‘Hey, were are interested, help us figure out what to do,’ and we will do it for them.”
To counter misinformation about vaccines, staff will create a “surveillance system” made up of 200 Black residents and 50 medical and social workers. The group will be surveyed frequently to learn what vaccine myths they frequently face.
“They don’t always know how to respond and it’s hard to come up with appropriate counter messages on the fly,” Kreuter said.
Through the surveys, Kreuter’s team can learn misinformation is spreading in the community and develop appropriate responses to immediately get in the hands of frontline workers.
To address dismal participation of minorities in clinical trials of new treatments and medications, which can impact their effectiveness, the group will create a website and phone number where residents can learn about research opportunities and ask questions.
Recruitment strategies will also include advertising and outreach through other social service programs and community events.
“We want to make sure what we are learning is applicable to all populations,” Kreuter said.
Other efforts include learning more about Black residents’ experience with COVID-19 and the diverse reasons why they are hesitant toward getting vaccinated.
“Generally, people who have been personally affected by the pandemic are most likely to want the vaccine, but that’s not so true among Blacks,” Kreuter said. “We need to know why.”
Public health departments, community health clinics and community organizations are all trying various ways to boost vaccination rates — such as partnering with churches, holding clinics in parks and visiting the homebound.
Kreuter said he hopes that by tracking these strategies, they will have research findings that shows what works and what doesn’t.
“The people who are highly motivated to get vaccinated are largely vaccinated. … But we are going to have to fight and claw and scratch for every percentage beyond that, and we want to do it strategically, not just with a bunch of guesswork,” Kreuter said.
“In two, three, four months from now, hopefully we’ll know enough that we can be much more precise in deciding what we do to try and get the final holdouts who haven’t been vaccinated yet.”