Penn State Extension to provide vaccine education to underserved communities

May 28—Addressing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Pennsylvania, with a particular focus on the Latino population and those aged 65 and older in rural communities, is the objective of a project spearheaded by Penn State Extension.

The Extension Collaborative on Immunization Teaching and Engagement, EXCITE, is a joint effort between the nation's Cooperative Extension System and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and involves Luzerne and Schuylkill among the 10 counties targeted.

Katherine Cason, Penn State Extension assistant director for food, families and health programs, said the initiative will address hesitancy of the COVID-19 and other flu and adult vaccinations.

"As trusted members of the communities they serve, Penn State Extension educators are in a unique position to address the issue of vaccine hesitancy and safety with unbiased, research-based educational programming," she said in a news release.

Public health recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic have been confusing, even contradictory, as scientists gained an understanding of the virus, noted Maria Luisa Tejada de Rivero Sawers, extension educator in food, families and health, who co-directs the project with Cason.

"This situation has led to fear and anxiety among the public, resulting in lagging vaccination rates in some rural communities," Tejada de Rivero Sawers said. "We want to increase our audience's knowledge and trust for the COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines in general, as well as explain the benefits of herd immunity."

The two-year pilot project will align with the CDC's "Vaccinate with Confidence" campaign, designed to reinforce confidence in COVID-19 vaccines by building trust, empowering health care personnel and engaging communities through immunization education programs, community dialogues and clinics. Educators' initial efforts will focus on those 65 and older in rural communities.

A second phase will provide outreach to urban and rural counties with Latino communities. Educators will focus on Adams, Berks, Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Luzerne, Schuylkill and York counties, where only about 12% of Hispanic adults have been fully vaccinated as compared to nearly 32% of non-Hispanic adults, according to state Department of Health statistics.

"The Latinx population is overrepresented in coronavirus cases and is more likely to suffer severe outcomes," Tejada de Rivero Sawers said. "Latinx adults also have been harder hit by the economic impact of the pandemic. While many are open to getting vaccinated, there remains a sizeable share, particularly among younger Hispanics, with vaccine hesitancy."

The project begins in June with a needs assessment to understand the drivers of vaccine confidence and the barriers to vaccination among seniors and Latinx populations. This information will help guide print, radio and social media promotions to dispel myths and allay fears. Webinars and community-based sessions also will be offered, during which participants can share their personal stories and ask questions.

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