Pharmacists Play Unique Role in Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy

Jacinda Abdul-Mutakabbir, assistant professor of Pharmacy Practice at Loma Linda University, discusses how pharmacists can improve vaccination rates and learn from the pandemic.

In an interview with Pharmacy Times® at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists Midyear Meetings and Exhibition, Jacinda C. Abdul-Mutakabbir, PharmD, MPH, AAHIVP, assistant professor of Pharmacy Practice at Loma Linda University, discusses how pharmacists can improve vaccination rates and learn from the pandemic.

Q: As the pandemic has entered a more endemic phase, how has the landscape for vaccine hesitancy changed?

Jacinda Abdul-Mutakabbir: I think there are a lot of things that we have to consider just with the new phase of the pandemic that we are in. I would argue that we're still really within the trenches of the pandemic. I feel like the first 2 years were kind of just the really big overhaul or kind of looking at the procedures and the things that we had in place to really get vaccines out quickly, and to make sure that everyone knew about how they worked and to increase uptake.

I feel like at this point, we're in this place of, well, the vaccines have been around since 2021. Now we have several, we've had several iterations of boosters. We're in the place where we have to bivalent boosters. I think the landscape of just the information around vaccines have changed. Vaccine hesitancy will always be there, but I think we're definitely entered a different landscape more so of, well, why do I have to receive so many different doses of the vaccine or what is the bivalent booster and so on, and so forth.

I think that I would argue that we're in a comfortable place with vaccine uptake. At least we're getting folks fully vaccinated because we have the vaccines around we are working on cultivating and refining our messaging surrounding why it is that individuals need vaccines, why it is that they need boosters. I think that we can we have a lot to learn in terms of our communication strategies and just ensuring folks know why it is that we have to do the boosters to make sure that we have just sustained uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines.

I think that's where we need to focus on is “how do we really stretch out our communication strategy? And how do we make sure that we continue to stretch just the importance of continued vaccinations?”

Q: How can pharmacists counsel patients about the importance of vaccines related to new variants?

Jacinda Abdul-Mutakabbir: We have such an important role in terms of increasing vaccine uptake and communicating why it is that vaccines are important. I think that this also just extends far past COVID-19. I think that now that we do have COVID-19 vaccines, but then we also have influenza vaccines that we need to ensure that people are getting. Vaccines have dropped now to the lowest uptake that we've had in the last decade. It was really important that pharmacists really step in and bridge the gap. I think as one of the most trusted health care professionals, if not the most trusted and of course, I'm a bit biased there, but I think that we can translate the scientific information related to the vaccines to really ensure that individuals know what the importance is, how did the vaccines work, where were the vaccines tested, we are really stewards of that information.

I think that's the biggest way that pharmacists can be there, and to also just be culturally competent and the engaging voices there to go ahead and not only make the patients feel comfortable, but to understand that there are differences for every patient that it is that we approach and really treating them in accordance to that difference may be an empathetic to why it is that they may not want the vaccine or why they may have hesitancy to receive it.

Q: What is the role of pharmacists in improving vaccination rates, especially within racially and ethnically minoritized communities?

Jacinda Abdul-Mutakabbir: I think that pharmacists have several different roles. I'm really excited to just see where it is that pharmacy is headed in terms of public health, and then public health messaging, because we are just really integral and change agents in their space. I think first and foremost, and I'd like to separate this into 4 different four different really strong points that pharmacists can really engage when trying to increase vaccine uptake and really just increase in make that role of pharmacist in this place clear.

One: culture cultural competency. I think that pharmacists often have to be culturally competent, being a pharmacist means that you have to be culturally competent, because we provide care to so many different people. We're always interacting with so many different individuals of different cultural backgrounds. We need to know what those differences are there how it is that we can tailor our messaging regarding vaccines. Two: education, so translating the scientific information that's relevant to what it is that the vaccines do and why it is individuals need to receive vaccines, and then 3: advocacy, so advocating and ensuring that vaccines are placed in minoritized communities. A lot of times that is the limitation. There might be hesitancy surrounding receiving vaccines, but then also, there might not be a place that is easy for individuals to get to receive the vaccines. The nearest pharmacy may be 30 miles or so away. Advocating for different measures that can be put into place to make accessibility one of ease for individuals of these communities.

Then also action. I think action is just a combination of the first 3 that I mentioned, but more importantly, being those individuals that are you know, making those statements as to why it is that the advocate is important, putting different vaccine clinics into place to make sure that things are more accessible, making sure that our students know how important it is that we create this because at the end of the day, we want a sustainable, equitable health care, infrastructure. To do that, we have to make sure that we train those in that likeness. We have a lot of different places, but we have a very distinct role to ensure that we promote preventative medicines.

Q: What resources are available for pharmacists to better combat vaccine hesitancy?

Jacinda Abdul-Mutakabbir: One thing that I will say is I feel that we have a ton of just amazing resources available to us by even our own pharmacy organizations, so the American Pharmacists Association, or APhA, has a vaccine competent collaborative that individuals come together and really share ideas, and from those shared ideas, they are able to create messaging and a toolkit essentially to assist pharmacists to ensure that we are able to go ahead and just communicate and to talk to those that may be vaccine hesitant.

So we have that, of course, the CDC has an amazing toolkit, especially for trusted messaging. We also have the World Health Organization, which has a vaccine toolkit, so many different toolkits that are available for pharmacists, and the one thing that I really love about APhA is that it's a focus for racially and ethnically minoritized communities kind of really engaging individuals of these communities to make sure that we can promote vaccine uptake, and it's tailored specifically to pharmacist. While we do have those other things available to us, I will advocate for exploring that APhA initiative.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

Jacinda Abdul-Mutakabbir: I guess one thing that I would say in closing is although behaviors and attitudes surrounding the pandemic has changed, it continues to have negative effects within racially and ethnically minoritized communities. Then even as we think about long COVID-19, and different experiences, or different collateral damage, that is, that is due to COVID-19. Those effects are more likely going to be felt in racially and ethnically minoritized communities. We don't necessarily have the numbers there, so I can't say that for certain, but history would lean towards that perspective. I think that we just have to be very intentional about what it is that we say, the things it is that we teach our students as they are training, but more importantly, we have to keep equity at the forefronts of our minds because that's the least that anyone can have is health care providing to them in the most accessible and easiest way.

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