Local knowledge and engagement could be key in COVID vaccine take-up effort, finds new research by academics in the UK and US

19 Nov 2021

Local knowledge and leadership could be key in efforts to improve COVID-19 vaccine take-up across different communities, finds a new UK-US collaborative study examining vaccine engagement in the countries.

Funded by the British Academy, the Social Science Research Council and the UK’s Science & Innovation Network in the USA, and delivered by the UK’s Institute for Community Studies and the US’ Institute for Community research, Understanding Vaccine Hesitancy Through Communities of Place explores levels of vaccine engagement in four locations: Oldham and Tower Hamlets in the UK, and the cities of Boston and Hartford in the US.

The project reviewed existing evidence and conducted fresh research to identify how national policies for vaccine distribution and education have influenced take-up of the jab at local levels. This involved speaking to over 120 representatives of community organisations, local health systems, local government, the voluntary and civil society sector, and key faith and frontline institutions.

The study found that in all four localities, the authorities’ top-down approach to vaccine distribution and education has been ineffective and that applying a "community engagement approach" instead –involving community groups and trusted leaders in vaccine distribution and education – can improve take-up of the jab.

The researchers also recommend that:

  • Community agencies and representatives should be supported to identify smaller populations of hesitant or unvaccinated people, and their sources of influence;
  • Efforts should be made to identify, and administer the vaccine to, groups that are harder to reach. For example, former prisoners who have yet to be reintegrated into systems of service care and young people in insecure housing;
  • Policy makers and service providers should understand and integrate recognition of historical trauma and discriminatory experiences into COVID vaccination messaging and strategies.

Professor Simon Goldhill FBA, Foreign Secretary & Vice-President at the British Academy, said:

“Whether it is cross-faith leaders coming together in Tower Hamlets to facilitate pop-up vaccination groups or GPs in Oldham joining forces with local councilors to help rollout vaccinations to the homeless, this report examines some of the innovative measures communities are taking to strengthen vaccine engagement. The findings also highlight the importance of locally specific data, which can help make sense of the scale, demographic profile and geographical location of vulnerable populations and also anticipate hesitant groups as well as track uptakes.”

Professor Anna Harvey, President at the Social Science Research Council, said:

“This welcome report highlights the need for researchers and policymakers to better understand the ways in which community organisations can support important public health outreach campaigns. We know little about the ways in which local organisations like libraries, civic clubs, faith-based organisations, sports teams, and others can support the uptake of reliable and accurate public health information, and can counter the damaging effects of inaccurate and misleading health information. This report is a call-to-action for further investment in research on the role of community-based organisations in supporting a more resilient public health ecosystem.”

Ronit Prawer, Director at the Science and Innovation Network, Eastern USA, said:

“This transatlantic and interdisciplinary study delves into the critical relationship between communities of place and vaccine engagement. Research of this nature is crucial in helping us to better understand the myriad of complex factors at play in vaccine distribution and education and in supporting evidence-based policymaking. We’re delighted that UK and US researchers can jointly bring their considerable expertise to bear on pressing problems like that of improving COVID-19 vaccine take-up across different communities.”

Emily Morrison, Head of the Institute for Community Studies, said:

“The process of working collaboratively with local partners who are directly leading the vaccination rollout was very humbling, both in their evident and untiring commitment to supporting equitable engagement to vaccination acceptance and vaccine education, and in their extensive shaping and contribution to this research itself. The ICS and ICR with Boston University feel privileged to have worked on this project, working with local systems to demonstrate the importance of understanding communities of place in the delivery of health in times of crisis.”

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