Voicing Support for Vaccination

AACP Article

Pharmacy schools are finding creative ways to advocate for the COVID-19 vaccines and to fight falsehoods circulating online.

Joseph A. Cantlupe

While millions of vaccines are going into arms across the country to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a flurry of misinformation about vaccine efficacy and the disease itself also is spreading. At colleges and schools of pharmacy, faculty, students and staff are working in clinics, stadiums and arenas, or partnering with pharmacies and physicians to administer vaccines and manage workloads. Some schools are taking it a step further, combating the naysayers touting fictions that are swirling around the virus and the vaccines, using YouTube, Instagram or other social media to amplify the message.

While scientists strongly argue that the vaccines approved for distribution by the Food and Drug Administration are highly effective—and cannot cause COVID-19 because they don’t contain active viruses—there are still many doubters, who are against vaccines generally because of their own political or religious beliefs or because they do not trust the science. Some who are hesitant about taking the vaccine are unsure of the impacts but are still open to the idea that the vaccines are effective.

At the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy, students wanted to take charge to educate the vaccine hesitant. Dr. C. Michael White, department head and distinguished professor of pharmacy practice, initiated ideas to spread the word about the importance of vaccines, and students jumped in, discussing social platforms to use and how to find effective messages to counter the arguments from the anti-vaccine population.

Student pharmacists worked to create a video series—each one about two to three minutes long—about different elements of the vaccines, such as their chemistry and impacts, focusing on issues that many people would have questions about, said Dr. Diana M. Sobieraj, associate professor. “This was a great example of real life in front of their eyes, and how to use and search for credible information to counter that. We should use this approach for other vaccinations at opportunities in the future,” she said.

Among the students’ concerns: Minority and non-English speaking communities are confronted with an array of misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines, prompting many people in those communities to decline the opportunity to get vaccinated. Study after study reveals that Black and Hispanic populations are receiving fewer vaccinations compared to White populations, as well as having higher incidences of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Sobieraj noted that the YouTube and social media presentations emphasize the importance of reaching out to multiracial groups.

Students focused their attention on the need for outreach to diverse communities; their videos were recorded in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese and Polish. “When we released the videos, the timing was perfect,” Sobieraj said. YouTube and social media were the “main mechanisms for disseminating the information, and that is still evolving.” The students engaged in questions and answers with their audiences. “They received a lot of appreciation from patients. The students also shared that information with family and friends to provide accurate and unbiased information.”

Questions and Answers

Will the vaccine give me COVID-19? Can the COVID-19 vaccine cause infertility? In a smooth delivery on YouTube, UConn School of Pharmacy student Leanne Varga discussed the issues surrounding the vaccines and COVID-19. “Some people have been wondering if you will test positive for COVID-19 after receiving the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines,” she said. “I’m here to answer your questions today.”

Varga was candid about the positive impact of the vaccines against COVID-19. “It will rapidly attack and reduce the chances that you will get the disease,” she said. “It doesn’t contain live viruses; the vaccine will not cause you to test positive for COVID-19. The great news is that within a few weeks of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, it is more than 90 percent likely that you will not contract COVID-19.”

“The vaccines are not optimally effective after the first dose,” she added. “It takes time for the body to create that optimal immune response after receiving the second dose. There is a small chance you can still contract COVID-19.” Varga emphasized that the information presented by student pharmacists was based on the COVID-19 vaccine literature, “to help you make an informed decision.” As for the myth that the vaccines cause infertility, that is indeed just a myth.

“It was a team effort in creating the script,” Sobieraj said. “The effort was not only to serve the public but also to be creative in a way to allow students to earn their curriculum requirement.”

The Western University of Health Sciences College of Pharmacy also tapped into social media to relay the importance of people getting vaccinated and sorting fact from fiction. “A lot of students are working in vaccine clinics and helping people who want to get vaccinated,” said Dr. David Sanchez, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the college, located 30 miles outside of Los Angeles. “One group is using social media infographics. There are truths and myths about COVID-19. The younger students are good at social media interactions and with that engagement” about the uncertainties surrounding the vaccines, he said.

It’s important to give information to people, that’s the key. There are the anti-vaxxers, the people who are pro vaccine and then there are the people who are hesitant. That is an important distinction; the hesitant people are the ones in the middle that the students can engage with.

David Sanchez

“It’s important to give information to people, that’s the key,” he continued. “There are the anti-vaxxers, the people who are pro vaccine and then there are the people who are hesitant. That is an important distinction; the hesitant people are the ones in the middle that the students can engage with. The anti-vaxxers, you are never going to change their feelings. But the ones you have to engage with are those on the fence.”

Sanchez also discussed inequities among those who have received the vaccines, noting, “different populations have been given preferential treatment, some people are sneaking around for vaccinations, there is a lack of equitable access for everybody. It’s a real-life situation.” As an immunology instructor, Sanchez reached down into his own experience as someone who participated in a COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial. Sanchez said he will continue to be followed in the trial over two years “to see how the immune response is going and to monitor antibodies and (issues) like that.”

The instruction is significant for students, as are the ramifications of how they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanchez said, because the lessons learned today may be considerably helpful if another virus outbreak occurs “in the next 10 or 20 years.”

AACP Weighs In

The vaccine rollout, which has been a major priority for President Biden, is being supported by a special AACP policy task force formed out of the need for educational initiatives related to COVID-19, said Jasey Cárdenas, AACP’s associate director of strategic engagement. In a letter to Biden, the task force outlined how pharmacy schools are involved in the planning for vaccinations as well as the distribution and administration of the vaccine.

Cárdenas noted that AACP is collecting information for schools about other institutions that are involved in helping distribute the vaccines, as well as providing tools to help other colleges and schools of pharmacy get involved. “Student pharmacists across the U.S. have been directly involved in ensuring the vaccines are available to other frontline healthcare providers and serve as certified immunizers to administer the vaccines to patients,” according to the letter signed by AACP Executive Vice President and CEO Dr. Lucinda Maine. She referred to the significant number of students enrolled in an array of academic programs: 60,000 Doctor of Pharmacy, 1,194 Master of Science and 3,217 Ph.D. students enrolled at colleges and schools of pharmacy across the country.

This was a great example of real life in front of their eyes, and how to use and search for credible information to counter that. We should use this approach for other vaccinations at opportunities in the future.

Dr. Diana M. Sobieraj

“Pharmacy schools have also modified their continuing education and professional development programs to ensure greater access to the training and certification programs needed to administer the COVID-19 vaccines,” the letter said. Despite that statement, too many in academia and elsewhere are unaware that student pharmacists are and can be involved in distributing vaccinations, Cárdenas said. “A lot of leaders don’t understand that pharmacists are trained to immunize, and there is a lot of training involved in that,” he pointed out. “We are working to get information out to governors and state health officials through the task force and pharmacy partners to let them know about student involvement.”

The letter highlighted the message that AACP is working to “help with the vaccinations and other issues that may arise during the pandemic,” said Cárdenas, “including a lot of the actual work that students can do.” The AACP Policy Advisory Task Force is comprised of members who are administrators, researchers and faculty leaders representing private and public colleges and schools of pharmacy around the country. (See the full list of task force members here.) [TRICIA: CAN WE ADD LINK?]

The pandemic has delivered some obvious changes, such as remote instruction, and also underscored that education must be continually innovative, Sobieraj pointed out. “I’ve been in academia as an instructor for over 10 years,” she said. “The [pandemic] has certainly brought us all and pushed us to be better educators and have to adapt to this environment. We are still bound by the curriculum and [standards] but have had to be creative with the delivery of the content.”

Joseph A. Cantlupe is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.