When it comes to trusted, reliable information about the COVID-19 vaccine, people want to hear from their physicians. But for home care and nursing home workers who work long, irregular hours caring for seniors and people with disabilities, finding the time or opportunity to speak with a doctor about the vaccine isn’t easy.
Because of the very real obstacles so many working people face, we reimagined what outreach looks like in a world where conversations take place on screen. As the country’s largest healthcare union, SEIU has partnered with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), to create a national virtual outreach program. Since January, we’ve hosted Facebook Live events, tele-town halls and other mediums that connect long term care workers with UCSF physicians, creating a space to ask questions and get the information they need to make confident decisions about getting vaccinated. Our unique approach has a “secret sauce” with three key ingredients:
Trusted Messengers: The majority of long term care workers are Black, brown and immigrant workers. Racist and sexist policies have resulted in very real healthcare disparities for many working people of color, so it’s understandable that home care workers may not trust the government or healthcare system for vaccine guidance. But they do trust their unions, so we serve as a validator and trusted messenger of vaccine information.
Culturally-Competent Physicians: UCSF physicians tailor their conversations to address the needs of their audience — and this is especially important with uninsured and underserved communities. Multilingual physicians have hosted events in Arabic, Cantonese, English, French, Haitian Creole, Hmong, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
Storytellers from peers: We are all more receptive to information from members of our own community, and peer-to-peer conversations are key to boosting vaccine confidence. We’ve shared consistent images and messages from fellow workers sharing positive messages about why they decided to take the vaccine.
“I absolutely understand trepidation and fear,” said Shelly Hughes, a certified nursing assistant in Washington State. “When you work in nursing homes, you are used to being taken for granted. But this vaccine is not coming from your employer, it is coming from scientists who have done this incredible job in developing and testing the vaccines. I’ve taken it and plenty of people have taken it now and it is working.”
This virtual outreach model is working. The largest local healthcare union in the country, 1199SEIU, has seen a dramatic drop in the number of healthcare workers who expressed reluctance about taking the vaccine after undertaking a multi-layered education and outreach campaign. Between December and late February of this year, among home care workers this sentiment dropped by 20 percentage points. Among nursing home workers it dropped 30 points. And among nurses it dropped by 42 points.
Access to the vaccine, however, remains a real problem — especially for home care workers. Most home care workers don’t have paid time off, so travelling to vaccination sites to attend a vaccine appointment could mean missing a shift. Missing a shift means missing wages. And missing wages could mean missing a bill payment. To remove these roadblocks, we bring vaccines to essential workers. Partnering with FEMA, universities, and local health departments and hospitals, SEIU has hosted pop-up clinics in Massachusetts, California, Washington and Oregon. We’ve made real progress, but our work is not done yet.
Long before COVID-19, long term care workers have given their all to keep their clients, residents and communities safe. We can all do more to renew our efforts to reach healthcare workers with the facts, increase access and make it easier to take the vaccine. It’s the least we can do for people who have given their all throughout the pandemic and deserve to be respected and protected.
Leslie Frane is an Executive Vice President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Alicia Fernandez, M.D., is a Professor of Medicine at UCSF and Director of the UCSF Latinx Center of Excellence