By: Randall Simpson, Public Health Analyst III
COVID-19 remains a public health crisis that has left no population untouched. As of this writing, the United States is the global leader in confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths worldwide, with over 47 million cases and 750,000 deaths as of November 2021. Though COVID-19 vaccines have been developed and distributed globally, vaccination rates in the U.S. still vary by region. Only 46 percent of adult rural Americans are fully vaccinated compared to 60 percent in urban areas. Rural COVID-19 mortality rates are more than twice that of their urban counterparts. Public health officials have had to combat pre-existing challenges in these historically disenfranchised communities (as detailed in the previous blog post) and varying levels of public health policy restrictions and mandates, as well as misinformation that fuels vaccine hesitancy. Creating COVID-19 messaging tailored to a rural audience and delivered by trusted stakeholders can make an important impact in these areas.
The Prevention Research Centers Vaccine Confidence Network (PRC VCN) is comprised of 26 Prevention Research Centers that leverage Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Vaccinate with Confidence strategy to build and evaluate COVID-19 vaccine confidence and demand in diverse communities. PRCs prioritize stakeholder involvement and share their technical expertise with community partners to develop, test, and implement public health programs. Interventions in rural communities often rely on trusted messengers to help address unique reasons for hesitancy and disseminate accurate information about COVID-19 to the public. Interventions also include models for vaccination in non-clinical settings.
- Social Media Messaging –West Virginia University PRC has partnered with the Center for Rural Health Development and West Virginia University Public Interest Communication Research Lab to create a video series called “COVID-19 Vaccine Questions Answered by West Virginia Experts.” The video series featured local experts addressing common anxieties related to the virus and vaccine, answering questions in videos like, “how did the COVID vaccines get developed so quickly?” and “do the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination outweigh any risks of the vaccine?”
- Delta Campaign – The University of Iowa PRC has partnered with the Iowa Public Health Association and Iowa Immunizes Coalition to help local community leaders promote vaccine uptake in Iowa’s micropolitan communities, due to increased interest in the vaccine caused by the rise in cases of the Delta variant. The Delta campaign was developed with significant community input and uses ads, social media posts, and local partners like faith leaders and youth groups to encourage vaccination. The campaign was developed and tested with members of the community; its themes include red, white, and blue colors and patriotic imagery. An example of the messaging can be found on their website here.
- Listening Sessions – The University of Arizona PRC collaborated with the Zuckerman College of Public Health Mobile Health Unit to increase vaccination uptake among rural, uninsured and underinsured, and farmworker populations in Southern Arizona. Utilizing community perspectives to determine key behavioral insights, project staff will conduct listening sessions with Community Action Board members and key stakeholders to mitigate barriers to vaccine uptake. More information can be found on their website.
The pandemic has caused the expansion of the use of public health principles to deliver evidence-based, culturally appropriate health communication and access to health care resources. The coordinated and comprehensive approaches that the PRCs developed can set the stage for long-term collaborative strategies in rural populations and have a transformative impact on historical barriers to providing care.