PeaceHealth Is Vaccinating Rural America Through Peer-to-Peer Outreach

As efforts continue accelerating to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and to administer shots in arms across the country, attention has turned to rural areas, which so far has been a weaker link in the vaccination campaign.

According to the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor, a research project tracking the public’s attitudes and experiences with COVID-19 vaccinations, 39% of adults living in rural America say they have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That outpaces the 31% of people living in cities or suburbs who say the same.

Yet nearly half of rural Americans say they are holding off on getting vaccinated, and nearly 10% say they will get the vaccine only if required by employers, school officials or other federal, state or local agencies. More than 20% of rural Americans say they will “definitely not” get the vaccine.

The PeaceHealth clinic in Bellingham, Washington, is determined to convince the rural communities it serves throughout Whatcom County to get vaccinated, with special emphasis on farmworkers and their families. With more than 100,000 acres of fertile Pacific Northwest farmland, Whatcom County ranks in the top 3% of farm production in the U.S. The county is the nation’s largest producer of red raspberries and ranks first in the nation for milk production per cow.

The team at PeaceHealth believes that misinformation is a key factor deterring many people from getting vaccinated. Subsequently, the health system has focused its attention on spreading the word about the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines and mass immunity. Special emphasis is on enlisting community health workers and volunteers who can relate to the local people.

The community health workers, known as promotoras, are armed with education toolkits to help make the science easy to understand when talking with the farmers and signing them up for vaccine appointments. A group of volunteers who speak the languages of the region’s diverse population, including Spanish, Indo-European languages and Asian and Pacific Island languages, conduct personal, peer-to-peer outreach.

Frequent news and updates on the growing number of people vaccinated are posted on the health system’s website and social media channels. Bellingham-based North Sound Accountable Community of Health, which serves five counties, has a series of videos on its website in which people, some of them health care workers from PeaceHealth, explain why they got vaccinated against COVID-19 and address overcoming concerns. The videos feature American Indian tribal members, including from the Nooksack Tribe, as well as people who speak Punjabi, Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish, Mixtec and Tagalog.

On a national level, American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall wrote about the importance of getting vaccinated in the organization’s widely read newsletter and shared a vaccination photo of himself on social media. The Health Resources & Services Administration is providing nearly $1 billion to help rural hospitals broaden testing, improve access to the vaccines and deliver other COVID-19 prevention services.

The results to date? At least 505 farmworkers have received vaccine doses in Whatcom County during March and April. That number is significant considering that Whatcom County residents who identify as Hispanic are being vaccinated for COVID-19 at a rate about half the rest of the county, according to the Washington State Department of Health.