UMass Worcester Center for Prevention Research Targets Community Spread of COVID-19
The front line in the battle against COVID-19 now encompasses the hospital setting as well as the community, where the UMass Worcester Prevention Research Center works with partners to promote vaccination, track infections and address the social determinants of health affecting vulnerable groups.
“What we’re doing now builds on all the strong relationships the Prevention Research Center has had with community partners since we were first funded in 2009,” said Stephenie P. Lemon, PhD. , Marcellette G. Williams Scholar, professor of population and quantitative health sciences and co-director of the Center for Research on Prevention. “We have worked with the Worcester Division of Public Health, Worcester Office of Health and Human Services, State Department of Public Health and others from the very beginning to provide epidemiological infrastructure, data and evidence-based support.
A key effort has been to promote acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines and boosters among youth, children and families through a vaccine ambassador campaign based on local immunization data, voices of parents, behavior change theory and evidence-based practice. It is co-developed through partnerships with the Worcester Office of Health and Human Services, Worcester Division of Public Health and many other organisations.
The Vaccine Ambassadors campaign focuses on the words of trusted messengers, people connected to the community who can talk about why they decided to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
With support from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UMass Chan researchers and partners have developed an intervention to address vaccine hesitancy featuring young people as vaccine ambassadors in the community, especially those who are at high risk of serious illness and less likely to get vaccinated. This training produced the #PostVaxLife multimedia campaign, with posters, flyers, billboards, public service announcements and bus signs featuring vaccine ambassadors sharing their motivation to get vaccinated and leading people to Worcester Public Library Vaccination Clinic.
“The idea behind it is that people learn through messaging and they like to hear from people like them,” Dr. Lemon said. “It’s a really effective health promotion technique and so we built a whole campaign starting with these young adults.”
Walk into the Benedict UMass Memorial Pediatric Primary Care offices on the college campus and you’ll see posters of doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners, and a Spanish-speaking pediatric resident explaining why their families received the COVID-19 vaccine and why they encourage others to do it. The posters are a response to parents’ desire to learn more about vaccines from their child’s health care provider.
The Center for Prevention Research’s poster campaign, along with an evidence-based approach to talking with families, was embraced by the pediatrics group for several reasons, explained Angela L. Beeler, MD, professor Associate of Pediatrics and Head of General Pediatrics Division.
“First of all, everyone should know up front that we’re very pro-vaccine, so I think that helps prepare families that we’re going to have this conversation,” she said. “I also think, on a completely different note, that it’s good to have pictures with names and faces, because often in a large clinic like ours, it can be difficult to remember who are the people.”
Dr Beeler said about half of eligible children in practice have been vaccinated. The response from parents has been “everywhere,” from parents eager to get their children vaccinated as soon as they are eligible, to resistance.
As the pediatric messaging campaign nears the end of its formal evaluation, anecdotal reports suggest it shows promise in reducing vaccine hesitancy. “We had a few commenting on the posters, and one of them told a nurse that she had seen the poster and felt really comfortable getting vaccinated. said Beeler.
Lemon said the Center for Prevention Research has requested continued funding to expand research from their messaging work with pediatric practices and that they hope to expand the initiative across the state.
Most recently, the UMass Chan team partnered with You, Inc., which is an affiliate of Seven Hills Foundation and the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, to train, support and evaluate a network of Family Vaccine Ambassadors to speak with other parents in targeted communities.
Sixteen family vaccine ambassadors in Worcester and two in Southbridge have been recruited and trained, according to Amy Borg, MPH, Med, deputy director of the UMass Worcester Prevention Research Center. Each ambassador was to reach 10 to 20 families. The initiative wrapped up in late June, with plans for participants to discuss what went well and make recommendations for improvement.
In addition to promoting vaccines through trusted messenger campaigns, the Prevention Research Center has expanded its work in public health infrastructure, including case counts and immunization monitoring in the greater Worcester.
Another major effort has been to understand and address health disparities among traditionally marginalized populations, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, Lemon said. Vulnerable groups faced more food insecurity, housing problems, barriers to health care, and reduced or riskier jobs. A survey conducted in 2020 and a series of focus groups conducted in 2021 by the Prevention Research Center highlight these gaps.
“We shared this data with the local coalition and the City of Worcester to understand and prioritize how they are using ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act of 2021) funding,” Lemon said.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, “the commitment and collaboration we’ve seen in the community is nothing short of remarkable,” Lemon said. “To have our center be part of this community response has been truly valuable and exciting.”
The Prevention Research Center has been a member of the CDC-funded Prevention Research Center (PRC) network since 2009, addressing public health challenges in Massachusetts and serving as a national research model that connects academia, public health, community and health care. systems.
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