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As Matt Ignacio, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work, conducted virtual focus groups with members of American Indian (AI)/Alaska Native (AN)/Indigenous communities in and around Phoenix, participants described taking a cautious approach in emerging from the pandemic. As rules relaxed, participants wore masks. Social distancing stayed in place.
“There is a cautiousness moving forward,” Ignacio explained. For many participants he connected with who are essential workers or who live in households with family members of all ages, taking preventive steps to reduce the risk of COVID-19 has been especially important.
This caution has also propelled many members of the AI/AN/Indigenous communities to get vaccinated. As of late June, about half of Indian American adults living in Arizona had gotten shots – comparable to the national average. And in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, seven in 10 members of AI/AN communities received at least one shot of a vaccine.
Community members who participated in Ignacio’s focus groups said data helped inform these decisions. They relied on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tribal homepage websites, and updates from tribal leaders, all of which helped explain and keep participants informed about COVID-19.
“That was really encouraging,” Ignacio said. Additionally, community-based organizations, like the Phoenix Indian Medical Center and Native Health, have helped by sharing data and health resources throughout the pandemic.
Now, the CEAL team is addressing concerns some people may have about vaccines: “What if it is going to track me?” “Maybe it was developed too fast.”
To address these concerns, Ignacio asks participants: “What would it take to support and encourage friends and family members to get vaccinated?”
One response he heard: Hearing family members say, “Hey, I got the vaccine and I’m doing okay.” Another: Hearing tribal leaders say, “Hey, I got the vaccine, and this is why – because I want to protect myself and my family and my community.”
Ignacio and other CEAL researchers are using this feedback to create public health messages to strengthen vaccine confidence. Through Twitter, Facebook, and tribal webpages, they will share vaccine video testimonies and educational materials from Indigenous people.
The researchers also learned that historic mistrust of the government and of science have played a role in vaccine hesitancy. However, many participants listed public health leaders, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, as a trusted source. The team also found that those who were initially vaccine hesitant described a strong desire to want to trust science to move past the pandemic, which has been painful for many participants. Many lost loved ones, had COVID-19 disease, or made sacrifices by not seeing family members who live back home on their back on their respective tribal communities and homelands.
In addition to creating a campaign to boost vaccine confidence, CEAL researchers in Arizona are developing a mental health and well-being training toolkit, which community health workers will soon share as resources with urban and tribal communities.
The goal of all of these efforts, Ignacio says, is to help inform and protect community members, including those who might not have access to technology. And to keep asking questions, including one of the most important: “How do we continue to build trust between the science community and communities of color, specifically among Indigenous people?”
Listening to, learning from, and responding to the needs of community members, he said, creates a path forward to building and maintaining trust.