With many Americans hesitant or unwilling to be inoculated against COVID-19, the Baltimore City Health Department has partnered with several universities, through the VALUE Baltimore Initiative, with the aim of reaching out to a number of local demographic groups, including the Orthodox Jewish community, to encourage them to receive the vaccine.
“VALUE is super unique, in that … it is working with specific groups in the city that have barriers to vaccine acceptance or access and hiring ambassadors from those communities,” said Becky Slogeris, the associate director of the center for social design at the Maryland Institute College of Art, one of three universities involved in the program. “Our intention is to make sure that they have the information needed to be able to make an informed decision.”
This is accomplished through peer-to-peer conversations between individual community members and part-time VALUE ambassadors, said Slogeris. VALUE is short for “Vaccine Acceptance and Access Lives in Unity, Engagement and Education.” VALUE’s vaccine peer ambassadors go out into the field to meet with community members, such as at tabling events, via social media or organically within public venues.
There are a total of nine “VALUE communities” that the initiative is targeting, said Laura Kurcfeld, a VALUE community lead coordinator, as well as an ambassador coordinator, for the Orthodox Jewish community. In addition to the Orthodox Jewish community, the program also focuses on adults ages 65 and older, pregnant and lactating individuals, immigrants and refugees, people experiencing homelessness and disabled residents, said Slogeris, a resident of Baltimore.
The Orthodox Jewish community was selected as one of the VALUE communities because data from the Baltimore City Health Department showed it was potentially in need of the additional resources and attention the initiative could provide, said Kurcfeld, a resident of Pikesville who attends several synagogues. The initiative found that the Orthodox community faces several barriers to the vaccine often present in mass vaccination clinics, said Cathy Costa, the director of strategic initiatives in the Bureau of Maternal and Child Health in the Baltimore City Health Department.
“[This includes] needing same-gender vaccinators, or having concerns about modesty of dress and needing curtains or more private places to vaccinate,” Costa explained. “And most mass vaccination venues were not particularly accommodating to those needs.”
To help with those concerns, the initiative has been running a number of mobile clinics to better meet the needs of the different communities, including the Orthodox Jewish community, Costa said.
Kurcfeld was encouraged by the rate of vaccination within the Orthodox Jewish community.
“More than half of the community is [fully] vaccinated,” Kurcfeld said. “But there are definitely groups of people, and we know that they are there, we talk to them, we hear them, and they definitely need this additional education to combat the hesitancy.
“There’s so much misinformation out there, and disinformation,” Kurcfeld continued, “and it’s a matter of making sure that everybody has the correct information, the truth, and has access to everything they need to make intelligent decisions, and make proper decisions, that are for the health of the community.”
The program started with a series of virtual listening sessions with each of the communities, said Slogeris. These sessions allowed the initiative to identify the unique needs and concerns of those communities and develop solutions to address them. The initiative began reaching out to the Orthodox community by February of 2021, said Kurcfeld. The listening sessions started in April, and it began deploying ambassadors in July. The ambassadors typically work 15 hours a week.
In addition to MICA, Johns Hopkins University and Morgan State University are also participating in the initiative, Slogeris said. Johns Hopkins lends its expertise in the science around vaccinations while Morgan State offers its prowess for community engagement, as well as the hiring and onboarding of the initiative’s ambassadors. Meanwhile, MICA brings in its proficiency for co-designing and co-creating solutions with community members, she said.
The process has an iterative nature, with the initiative keeping tabs on the ever-adapting virus and on the pulse of the community and any new hesitancies that may arise, revising its plans accordingly.
The initiative has found these hesitancies to be varied, said Kurcfeld. Some people already had COVID-19 and believe they no longer need the vaccine. Some believe it can cause issues with fertility. Some simply feel that their chances of contracting COVID-19 are too small to warrant a vaccine. While news about the speed at which the delta variant can spread has helped motivate some to get vaccinated who otherwise might not have, much work remains to be done.
It is difficult to be certain of the level of success the initiative has had on increasing the vaccination rate in the Orthodox Jewish community, Kurcfeld said, as the data they have does not specify the religious denomination of a resident who gets vaccinated. That said, she has seen small victories here and there.
“We did a tabling event last week,” Kurcfeld said, “and at that tabling event, five people signed up for vaccination appointments at the clinic that night. … We got them either on the phone talking to someone, or on their phone registering, and signed up for vaccine appointments right away, which was very nice.”