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Houston focus groups shed new light on COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy amid surge of subvariants

Houston, Texas — June 24, 2022

HEALTH-RCMI table at outdoor event with (from left to right) Virmarie Correa-Fernandez, Shalan Washington and Evan Coleman.
Event table with (from left to right) Virmarie Correa-Fernandez, Shalan Washington and Evan Coleman.

As two new Omicron subvariants emerge in the U.S., Americans brave through their third unpredictable summer of the pandemic with the looming possibility of another COVID-19 wave.

New data has been released that yet another new subvariant of Omicron, BA.2.12.1 has now become the most dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The BA.2.12.1 subvariant is now responsible for nearly 56 percent of new cases. The subvariants known as BA.4 and BA.5 are estimated to make up nearly 21 percent of all new U.S. COVID-19 cases, according to the CDC.

Ushering in a revolving door of new subvariants, the pandemic is slowly morphing into an endemic phase. As the CDC underscores, it’s even more critical to become vaccinated and protected from COVID-19. It’s also crucial to delve further into the underpinnings of why vaccine hesitancy still persists among African American and Latinx communities. Nearly 53 percent of people in underserved communities of color are fully vaccinated, according to the Houston Health Department. Yet, the stark reality is that African American and Latinx Houstonians make up 73 percent of COVID-19 deaths.

Taking a deeper examination into some of the barriers of vaccine acceptance is University of Houston’s Dr. Ezemenari Obasi who leads the HEALTH Center for Addictions Research & Cancer Prevention. The initiative, “Investigating SARS CoV-2 Vaccine Hesitancy” is currently in data-gathering stage of Phase II, and six focus groups have been launched in the Houston area. The neighborhoods include Third Ward, Fifth Ward, Acres Homes, Greenspoint, Gulfton and East End.

The impressions from the initial focus groups have been insightful and informative, according to HEALTH-RCMI Community Health Worker, Shalan Washington. Washington helped coordinate the Houston focus groups.

“It’s really important to have the contributions of the community that you’re looking to interact with and assist. No one knows the community better than those who live there,” Washington said. “I think it’s also important as the HEALTH-RCMI grows for us to be out in the community, to be active with health fair events that are going on, and also hosting our own events that are easily accessible to the surrounding communities that border the University of Houston.”

Now that the study is in data-gathering phase, the initial findings of the six focus groups have been revelatory, according to University of Houston researcher, Dr. Isabel Leal.

“The people in the Black community are quite aware of how serious and how dangerous COVID-19 has been for the community—that's the point that’s been brought home in the focus groups,” Dr. Leal said. “It’s also particularly devastating because the Black community is very communal. This whole idea that you can’t congregate and meet up with people anymore in places of worship or certain social settings has been a real drawback.”

At the initial phase of the study, barriers behind COVID-19 vaccine acceptance in marginalized communities have been identified as the following, according to Dr. Leal’s data:
  • Structural inequities, including financial insecurity, food scarcity, unemployment, housing problems

  • Earned Medical Mistrust

  • Need for the community to be listened to, share their voice--rather than be directly told to take the vaccine

  • Politicization of the vaccine

  • COVID-19 information keeps changing, ex: misinformation and disinformation

  • Little infrastructure in place to serve marginalized communities

  • COVID-19 has compounded the social, financial inequities since Hurricane Harvey

  • Access related to inequities, ex: The rollout assumes certain privileges, like internet connections

The fundamental solution to understanding vaccine hesitancy in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities is to truly listen to the community members, according to Dr. Obasi.

“One of those things that I appreciated from the data that was shared in that meeting was that folks just want to be heard," Dr. Obasi said. "They want you to hear what their real questions are and feel like you've given them due diligence in your response to them versus a flippant, 'you just need to do your part.'”

As a new community health worker on the HEALTH-RCMI team, Evan Coleman echoed some of the insight gained from the in-person community engagement during the focus groups.

“They (community members) shared their stories about some of their loved ones who got sick from COVID-19 and passed away,” Coleman said. “They appreciate people coming in and making an effort to find a solution.”

By Alison Medley

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