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Navigating Vaccine Hesitancy in Kansas City

Imagine waking up one morning after years of serving the public dutifully to find protestors outside your house calling you a traitor, a despot, a fascist, or worse. Imagine needing armed escorts to walk to your car after work, or seeing your children’s personal information splashed across the internet by hackers. Imagine receiving death threats every day, looking over your shoulder when you are grocery shopping, worried that you’ll have to leave your full cart of groceries again because an anti-mask, anti-vaccine fellow shopper chose that day to tell you how evil they think you are.

Now imagine doing all of that while still trying to control a global pandemic and keep your residents from dying. Public Health is fighting a nearly impossible situation. As a society, we’ve asked them to do more with less. They are starting from behind - fighting for budgetary scraps locally with outdated national infrastructure to track COVID hotspots and make informed decisions.

The challenges of COVID have evolved. Or rather, the challenges of COVID have piled on in a nearly 2-year layering of preventing, testing, tracking, treating, and vaccinating. These challenges exist in a policy patchwork where rules and regulations change with the crossing of an imperceptible city, county, or state line. At mySidewalk, we’ve stood in awe at the bravery of our Public Health customers as they continue to navigate the pandemic with integrity. 

Misinformation and fear are contagious. Hesitancy about the vaccine created a window for variants to thrive, but not all hesitancy is created equal. While some distrust the Government, others have a shaken belief in the Pharmaceutical industry. History shows us that some of these suspicions are well-founded, but new data reinforces the efficacy of vaccines. Figuring out why people abstain from vaccination is integral for Public Health leaders aiming to reach herd immunity. But, collecting primary data is expensive and time-consuming. We sought to find a better, more affordable way to understand the nuances of vaccine hesitancy.

“Working in public health during this pandemic has been really challenging and more like a marathon than a sprint. I remember back in spring 2020, we all thought we would quickly get this pandemic under control and then later, that once we had a vaccine, things would be back to normal. But it turns out this isn’t the case and a lot of people are getting worn down and exhausted.”

- Elizabeth Groenweghe, MPH, Chief Epidemiologist, The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, KS

Enter one of our longest-standing Public Health Partners: The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, KS (the UG). Situated a stone’s throw from our headquarters, the UG Health Department is responsible for protecting a very diverse and dispersed population. As Jerry Jones, a leader in Community Health and long-time Wyandotte County resident told us:

“Kansas is known as the "Free State" because of Wyandotte County, which was a key node of the Underground Railroad for Africans escaping enslavement. It is fascinating that while this small county provides the state with its identity of freedom and courage while also serving as the home to the Midwest's best BBQ and Mexican restaurants, Wyandotte County perennially ranks at the bottom for health opportunity and health outcomes. This is despite having the states' largest hospital system and the largest medical school and being situated next to the county with the best health opportunities and health outcomes. We are a county of devastating and preventable contradictions.”

Together, the UG and mySidewalk developed a resource that could help inform and shape the County’s work in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Vaccinations have been widely available, free, and accessible to the majority of the adult population since May 2021. The UG has developed and deployed numerous strategies to inoculate their willing residents across the county. But, today, with vaccination appointment slots wide open, more needed to be done to help residents make a decision; the low-hanging fruit had already been grabbed. 

UG Public Health needed to know more about the community factors driving vaccine hesitancy so that they could take the next step, and continue to develop a communication strategy to reach people with the right messages. 

The mySidewalk data science team responded with an index based on the Four C’s Framework of Vaccine Hesitancy. This index would focus on environmental predictors, not individual predictors, which is a novel approach that decreases the cost of the solution while increasing the timeliness of results. The index also reflected the unique priorities and principles of the UG by creating space for their team to participate fully in the methodological decisions made during the process.VaccineChart 

The final report revealed pockets of hesitancy across the county and attributed that hesitancy to a series of contributing factors. By differentiating root causes of hesitancy, the index allows the UG to strategically tailor their communications for the vulnerable populations. Some communities may respond proactively to incentives that encourage vaccination, while others may simply need to know where to get childcare while they get the jab. Additionally, there exist communities whose concerns do not make them good candidates for outreach. Identifying these areas ensures safety for outreach teams while committing scarce and valuable resources to influence empathic decisions for those who are willing to listen. 

 “The important thing to remember is that we now have a vaccine that is very effective and data from other countries is showing us that when vaccination rates are high enough, things do get better. That’s why this vaccine hesitancy work is so important—if we can help overcome vaccine hesitancy and low vaccination rates, we will be closer to a return to normal.”

-Elizabeth Groenweghe

Follow the link to learn more about mySidewalk's Index Development services and how they can help you.

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