Meeting People Where They Are: Tips for Vaccine Equity from ACER
By: Aimee Gillespie, Community Journalist-in-Training and UpTake Fellow
When asked to describe the immigrant communities they serve in one word, staff at ACER will say “Resilient.” ACER stands for African Career Education and Resources Inc., and it is the leading organization working with African immigrants in the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis and St. Paul. ACER helps immigrant communities organize around issues that are important to them, such as housing and economic development, but like many other non-profits around the country, ACER had to quickly pivot to meet the needs of the community at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now that COVID-19 vaccinations are widely available, ACER has pivoted once again to take the lead on organizing vaccination clinics targeting immigrant communities and communities of color. In Minneapolis, some of the lowest vaccination rates correspond to neighborhoods with a majority of residents who are Black, Native, Latino, East African Immigrants.
According to Arundhathi Sasikumar, a Program Manager, and Sohini Bag, a Health Equity Program Coordinator at ACER, vaccination among African immigrants has lagged primarily due to community mistrust in the COVID-19 vaccines, misinformation, and physical barriers to accessing vaccines.
ACER aims to remove barriers and promote vaccine uptake by hosting vaccine clinics in accessible locations, targeting misinformation, and building relationships with community members.
The first step to making COVID-19 vaccines more accessible is to go where the people are, says Sasikumar. To limit barriers such as transportation, winter weather and more, Sasikumar recommends that vaccination clinics be held in locations that are central to community members, such as at a church, mosque, community center, or school.
According to Bag, it is especially helpful to schedule clinics multiple times in the same locations, so if a person is hesitant about receiving a vaccine, they know they can come back the next time if they change their mind. Having navigators available to answer questions at vaccination clinics is also important.
“You have to be ready to have a one-to-one conversation with people,” said Bag. “How likely they are to get vaccinated depends on how convincing and empathetic you are.”
Misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines has been a prominent barrier to vaccine uptake among African immigrant communities. Sasikumar and Bag both emphasized the importance of having the right communications materials and strategies to reach people and build trust around the vaccine. For example, ACER has materials with drawings for children, so the vaccine will not be as frightening to them. Staff at ACER also work diligently to stay on top of new misinformation as it circulates through their communities, so they can address it properly if a client has concerns.
According to ACER, many African immigrants they serve did not have access to preventative care in the countries they lived in prior to immigrating to the United States, and navigating insurance can be a daunting task. Bag has found that it is easier to convince individuals to get a vaccine, whether it is for COVID-19 or the flu, if on-site navigators can show them that they don’t need to fill out pages of paperwork in advance. “If you show up consistently, they will trust you more,” said Bag.
ACER acknowledges that the communities it serves continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and can connect you to the resources you need. If you have a question, you can call 763-307-4731 or email: INFO@ACERINC.ORG. You can also look up free testing sites near you and book appointments at mn.gov/covid19.