After years of research with refugee and immigrant communities, USF anthropologists are now pivoting their efforts to ensure that Tampa’s hard-to-reach populations have access to free COVID-19 vaccinations. Roberta D. Baer and Dillon Mahoney, both from the USF College of Arts and Sciences, partnered with USF Health physicians and several community leaders to coordinate home visits and community-based vaccination events. With public vaccination sites becoming increasingly demobilized, such initiatives help reach individuals who have limited transportation options and English fluency.
“Three months ago, I was afraid, but I changed my mind,” said Melad Salib, an Egyptian vaccine recipient. “Now I feel safer.”
Salib learned about the vaccination opportunity from his priest, who was initially contacted by the USF team. By using trusted community partners, the vaccine intervention project is making a difference.
“As applied anthropologists, we can help bring communities together,” said Baer, professor in the Department of Anthropology. “I am in a unique position to be the go-between. This is the piece that I can do to contribute.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Baer and Mahoney have used their relationships in the community to help members get tested and vaccinated and to translate COVID-19 information into various languages. They have been signing up families one at a time to receive the two-dose Pfizer vaccine since April.
“Refugee and immigrant populations are particularly vulnerable to COVID and other vaccine-preventable illnesses,” said Dr. Asa Oxner, associate professor in the Morsani College of Medicine. “They are thus more likely to have workplace and home situations where they have trouble isolating or taking time off work without sacrificing their livelihoods.”
Collaboration with community leaders has been instrumental to making the vaccine intervention events trustworthy. Many people say they are afraid of the vaccine.
“There are many levels of hesitancy,” said Mahoney, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology.
Mahoney and Baer have worked with Congolese and other refugees for many years and are aware of the challenges of translating critical vaccine information for multilingual communities. Earlier this year, Mahoney’s team found numerous errors in the Swahili translation of a vital COVID-19 vaccine informational sheet that had been distributed nationally.
“People are scared of the unknown,” said Norma Reno, co-founder of Casa Venezuela, one of the community organizations involved.
People also fear being placed on watch lists, especially those who are undocumented. There are conspiracy theories, disinterest and general thoughts about not being important members of society.
“Vaccination is important. Any way we can help make it comfortable for people, we should do it,” said Dr. Eduardo Gonzalez, professor, in the Department of Family Medicine at the Morsani College of Medicine.