On the pandemic's frontlines
Eric Edwards, MPH, is a third-year PharmD candidate at The University of Oklahoma Health Science Center College of Pharmacy.
At the beginning of pharmacy school, I thought my primary focus would be learning clinical and scientific information and passing my examinations. I knew there would be new and adventurous opportunities that would arise throughout my education. Still, I did not expect a global pandemic that would not only change my life, but also change society as a whole.
Traditionally, at The University of Oklahoma Health Science Center, the college of pharmacy program requires third-year PharmD candidates to complete the APhA Pharmacy-Based Immunization Certificate Training Program. Due to COVID-19 and the number of people who wanted to be vaccinated drastically surpassing the numbers of licensed and practicing immunizers, our university started the training process earlier, in the early spring of our second year. I was excited to join the fight against COVID-19 as an immunizer.
My first experience administering a COVID-19 vaccine was at Millwood High School in Oklahoma City, where we vaccinated local community members on February 12, 2021. I felt prepared to give my first vaccine because of my experience during my graduate studies. However, I was concerned about the questions that would arise from my interactions with patients. As a student pharmacist, I thought some adults would be hesitant to trust that I knew how to properly administer a vaccine. I especially felt I could be of service in this particular community because I am an African American man. The area around this high school is predominately Black, and being able to represent this community and my profession made those I vaccinated more trusting. My first patient was an older Black woman, and the first thing she said to me was, “It’s good to see someone of color here doing this because sometimes we feel that our own people are never here to help.” This statement really stuck with me through the remainder of the day, as more than half of the patients I interacted with either made a similar remark or hugged me.
As part of the event, I was asked by the Oklahoma University Medicine television crew to participate in a brief interview to discuss my experience as a student pharmacist during the pandemic and how COVID-19 has affected our lives. After my interview, the next person to be interviewed was an older Black man who asked me, “Why do they show so many people like us in the ER? Are we more prone to getting the virus?” Before I answered his question, I prefaced that I was not sure why you see so many African Americans affected by COVID-19 in the news reports. I continued to say that, in my opinion, the larger hospitals in New York, Baltimore, and Cleveland are in neighborhoods where the minority population is higher. I am from Philadelphia, and most of our large hospitals are in neighborhoods where the population is tipped toward minorities. These patient interactions revealed to me a genuine distrust between some minority groups and the information being relayed to the public.
Listen, then show empathy
In March, I also participated in the COVID-19 vaccination clinic conducted at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center, where I encountered more vaccine-hesitant people due to the recall of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 vaccine. Anticipating patient concerns ahead of the event, I reviewed credible resources on the latest vaccine information so I could confidently address patient questions. Many of the questions I heard were about adverse effects and how to mitigate them if they occurred.
One patient at my station brought her iPad and began to show me bookmarks she had saved of non-credible websites that discussed reasons not to receive the vaccine. I was thankful for my clinical training in pharmacy school concerning patient interactions, where we learned to listen and then show empathy to patients voicing their concerns. I explained to her we do not know the long-term effects of the vaccine, and it is also in CDC and WHO’s best interests to keep us safe, healthy, and protected. This information helped put my patient at ease and assured her that I, alongside other health care providers, were working to prevent COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.
The real fight ahead of us
My experiences at the vaccination clinics and my position in the community setting have taught me COVID-19 is not the fight we are struggling with; we have the weapons to fight the disease. Our real barriers to convincing patients to get the COVID-19 vaccination are the lack of communication, distrust of Big Pharma and the government, and an abundance of non-credible information. If the United States wants to be at the forefront of vaccination against this virus, we need to drastically improve our communication and build trust between our communities and their providers. I hope that over the next few months I will be busy vaccinating and continuing the fight against COVID-19.
This project was funded in part by a collaborative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—CoAg number 1 NU50CK000576-01-00. The CDC is an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this resource do not necessarily represent the CDC or HHS, and should not be considered an endorsement by the federal government.