TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – In a partnership with community organizations, The University of Alabama is spearheading a project to get 70% of eligible people in the state’s Black Belt vaccinated against COVID-19 over the next year.
A $1 million grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration to UA will assist with vaccine information and outreach programs and support remote and pop-up vaccination clinics throughout the 18 counties.
“This is a very important and timely grant award in Alabama,” said Dr. Hee Yun Lee, lead on the grant and associate dean for research in the UA School of Social Work and Endowed Academic Chair in Social Work (Health). “Alabama’s low vaccination rate is more serious in rural areas than urban areas, so our grant targets rural communities like the Black Belt areas to increase the vaccination rate.”
Drawing on an interdisciplinary team from the areas of medicine, psychology, nursing, communicative disorders and social work, UA’s team will work alongside the Rural Alabama Prevention Center, a community-based organization in Eutaw, Alabama. The RAPC’s mission is to improve the overall health of people living in rural West Alabama through the provision of preventive health services, education and resources. Loretta Webb Wilson, founder and CEO of the organization, is community lead for the grant.
RAPC has deep connections in the Black Belt including with predominantly African American churches and other social service agencies to help with the rollout of the information campaign and vaccinations.
Alabama’s Black Belt, originally named that for its rich, dark soil, is a poverty-stricken area of the country, especially outside its small towns, with African Americans making up the majority of its population.
As the grant begins this month, Alabama has the highest positivity rate of COVID-19 of any state coupled with the lowest vaccination rate in the country, with only about 34% of the population fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control. Some counties in the Black Belt have more people fully vaccinated than the state as a whole, while some have a lower percentage.
“We will prioritize the counties to intervene based on current vaccination rates and vaccine hesitancy, and we will go to the counties that need intervention the most first,” Lee said.
The program will connect community members with local clinics and pharmacies to create “Shot on the Spot” events while also using UA’s Hear Here mobile truck to take vaccines to more remote areas to eliminate access barriers. It will also strive to improve health literacy on the COVID-19 vaccine using a culturally competent social media campaign.
It is possible vaccinations could begin in early September, but helping people learn about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine will be important, Lee said.
“It will be very hard to convince those who have not been vaccinated yet in Alabama,” she said. “We will develop and conduct a tailored health literacy education campaign first to reduce the misinformation, vaccine hesitancy and mistrust toward the COVID-19 vaccine by working with community partners. I believe that enhancing the vaccine literacy should come first and then we will go to the community to provide the vaccine.”
Along with Lee, UA’s team consists of Dr. Pamela Payne-Foster, professor of community medicine and population health in UA’s College of Community Health Sciences and a preventative medicine/public health physician; Dr. Rebecca Allen, professor and interim chair of the UA Department of Psychology; Dr. JoAnn Oliver, professor of nursing; and Dr. Marcia Hay-McCutcheon, professor of communicative disorders.