Rural health care organizations face unique challenges in caring for patients, from geography to payer mix to staffing shortages to high patient volumes. Educating communities on the COVID-19 vaccines’ safety and efficacy has emerged in the last year as among the thorniest challenges to work through.

That’s why the AHA has launched a comprehensive vaccine education program to support the hospital field, clinicians and members of the public with the support of $3 million in grant funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Our work is focused on getting the right message and recruiting trusted messengers on multiple platforms. Front-line health care workers have recorded #MyWhy videos and clinical ambassadors have recorded radio spots and written op-ed pieces, which has been crucial to these efforts.

Here are some takeaways for trustees based on discussions at a recent workshop at AHA’s Rural Health Care Leadership Conference, the focus of which was building confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines in rural communities:

  1. Having fully vaccinated boards and C-suites makes a real difference. Asked how many had their entire board of trustees vaccinated, most – but not all – trustees’ hands went up. Many felt it made a big difference for employees to see leadership walk the walk.
  2. The Navajo Nation is a vaccination success story. Many American Indian communities have achieved vaccination rates far above the national average. The Navajo Nation is one of them. They achieve this success through strong community partnerships and appealing to people’s love for and duty to extended family.
  3. Personal experience with COVID-19 is helping improve vaccine confidence in some areas... We asked the room whether vaccine confidence had gone up or down in the last year and 68% said it remained the same, 21% said higher and 9% said lower. Asked to elaborate, those who said it went up cited personal experience. Seeing the safety of the vaccines and impact of COVID-19 illness made the difference.
  4. …but misinformation is keeping confidence from getting higher. The role of social media in the spread of misinformation about vaccine came up repeatedly. One culprit: influencers with medical backgrounds who give information in conflict with what a patient would hear at a hospital.
  5. Personal choice is important to many Americans. For some, being able to choose was more important than the substance of the vaccine. At one hospital in Minnesota, several employees who received religious exemption from the vaccine ended up being persuaded to get it anyway. Distrust of the federal government in rural America also came up as a hesitancy factor.
  6. Not everyone has the same vaccine “why.” An Alaska trustee talked about being unsure about the vaccine but deciding to get it because her husband cares for an elderly family member. She said freedom to travel was also a factor. Others mentioned getting vaccinated to protect children who are too young to receive the shot.

Trustees in the session emphasized the importance of meeting people where they are, understanding their “why” and working with them to better understand where they are coming from.

Learn more about the AHA’s vaccine work at aha.org/vaccineconfidence. And stay tuned for AHA’s vaccine confidence playbook for trustees, coming soon.

Sean Barry is AHA’s senior associate director for media relations.

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