COVID-19 vaccines have been widely available since spring, yet across rural southwest and southern central Virginia, not a single county had more than 40 percent of its population fully vaccinated in mid-August, according to the Virginia Department of Health. That’s well below the state and national rates of over 50 percent.

Some of the unvaccinated are strongly opposed to getting the shots, while others merely remain skeptical.

Now, a group of Virginia Tech researchers, along with partners at Virginia State University, are working to deliver facts about the vaccine to the hesitant through messengers they know and trust: Virginia Cooperative Extension agents.

The effort is funded by two Extension COVID Immunization Training and Education (EXCITE) grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) totaling $225,000. As the state’s land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and VSU are headquarters for the Extension service.

“We’re combining our university expertise with our field expertise to figure out how to best reach these hesitant populations,” said Kathy Hosig, associate professor and director of the Center for Public Health Practice and Research in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, and Extension specialist who led the grant application process for Virginia Tech.

The effort will focus on rural and Appalachian region residents, agricultural workers, and migrant workers, many of whom are Hispanic, Black residents, and military communities. The target groups were identified using the CDC’s Social Vulnerability and Pandemic Vulnerability indexes.

Extension agents are well-known and highly regarded in these communities, so information coming from them might be better received.

“You have a considerable number of people who are still deliberating getting vaccines,” said Amanda Hensley, a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program, who provided research for the grant and will help facilitate the project. “Maybe they just need a little bit more time, maybe they need more facts or more data, or they haven’t had the chance to speak with someone who does research in this field or works within the healthcare system – someone who can give them the most up-to-date and accurate information so they can make informed decisions about their health.”

With the first grant of $25,000, a Virginia Tech team will assess why people in the target areas are reluctant to be immunized and scout venues and opportunities for follow up with education and mobile vaccine clinics.

With the second grant of $200,000, Virginia Tech and VSU will partner to provide vaccine education through trusted messengers such as extension agents, collaborate with the Virginia Department of Health to identify strategic locations for mobile vaccine clinics, and help residents to access immunizations.

Relationships built between universities, the Extension service, state and local agencies, and the individuals they reach during the project will provide a foundation for future needs, not only in a pandemic, but also for the life-long schedule of vaccinations recommended by the CDC. That includes overcoming vaccine skepticism in general.

The project also holds benefits for scientists.

“It’s important for researchers to have a better understanding of all populations, especially those who have previously been under-represented or under-invited in research studies. What are their motivations and what are their behaviors and attitudes towards science?” Hensley said. “We need to engage in a language the public understands, not just our fellow researchers. If we want overall population health to be more pro-active in wellness, we need to bring everyone else along with us as equitably and inclusively as possible.”

Other members of the project team from Virginia Tech include:

  • Sophie Wenzel, assistant professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences, and associate director of the Virginia Tech Center for Public Health Practice & Research in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Natalie Cook, assistant professor in the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Adrienne Ivory, associate professor in the School of Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
  • Julia Gerdes, assistant professor in the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
  • Carla Finkielstein, associate professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, and director of the Virginia Tech Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory that has processed more than 130,000 COVID-19 tests since April, 2020
  • Carlin Rafie, assistant professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and nutrition specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension
  • Karen Munden, unit coordinator Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for family and consumer sciences, and Extension state program leader for health
  • Bethany Eigel, unit coordinator Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for 4-H youth development
  • Brad Jarvis, unit coordinator Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources crop and soil sciences
  • Kimberly Butterfield, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for family and consumer sciences
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