Thinking With Your Head: State Fights COVID Vaccine Hesitancy Through Salons and Barbershops

Baltimore City District 10 City Councilwoman Phylicia Porter (D), spoke about the importance of reducing vaccine hesitancy at the launch of a state program that will provide COVID-19 vaccine clinics through local salons and barbershops Friday. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

In partnership with Kaiser Permanente, the Maryland Department of Health launched a program Friday to promote COVID-19 vaccine awareness to Black and Hispanic communities through local hair salons and barbershops.

“Those of us in public health, we’re waking up to COVID 24/7 and we’re constantly looking for ways to battle and actually end this pandemic,” Dr. Mark Martin, the deputy director of the Maryland Department of Health’s Office of Minority Health, said at a news conference held outside Hello Bonita Salon in Baltimore City’s Pigtown neighborhood Friday morning. “This is one tool in the toolbox, and we understand with the pandemic you have to think outside of the box.”

The program, which is a combination of Kaiser Permanente’s Good Health & Great Hair and the Department of Health’s GoVax initiatives, seeks to dispel misinformation and promote vaccine confidence among Black and Hispanic communities in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and Baltimore City.

Collectively, Kaiser Permanente, the University of Maryland School of Public Health and Live Chair Health, an organization dedicated to closing the health equity gap, have trained owners from about 50 different barbershops and salons about the basic facts of COVID-19 infections, the development, safety and efficacy of the vaccine and how to navigate the health care system during the pandemic.

Before COVID-19 hit, Kaiser Permanente trained salon owners to encourage their customers to be screened for different diseases and close the flu vaccine equity gap.

“Pre-pandemic, these programs existed and they were targeting chronic disease, education and outreach,” said Martin. “The goal is, with our support during this pandemic, to sign up more shops [and] expand the network, so when the pandemic ends there’s an infrastructure.”

Alma Roberts, the director of community health at Kaiser Permanente, said that shops can sign up to join the effort through Kaiser Permanente’s website in the near future.

The news conference was held in Baltimore City Councilmember Phylicia Porter’s district.

Porter, a public health practitioner, said the program is “a matter of life and death for many people.”

“We know COVID is very, very real and the pandemic has taught us what is most valuable to us, which is our health and our health care delivery system,” she said. “This vaccine is ingrained in real science, and being the only public health practitioner on the council with over 10 years of public health experience, this is so important that we ingrain this not only within our communities but in our families every single day.”

Dina Tillman, the owner of Hello Bonita Salon, said that the training sessions largely focused on the scientific aspect of the COVID-19 vaccine, and what she can say to clients who don’t want to be vaccinated to make sure they have the proper information.

“We want everyone to get vaccinated and we understand that some people are really hesitant, so we don’t want to make them feel as if they’re out of place or wrong, but just give them actual facts so that they can make a factual decision and a decision based off of science ― not a decision made out of fear,” Tillman said.

Dr. Mona Gahunia, an infectious disease specialist and associate medical director at Kaiser Permanente, said that the four-part training curriculum is constantly shifting to meet the changing demands of the pandemic.

“We’re really trying to educate the trusted voices in the community so that they can then go on and talk to their customers, talk to their friends, talk to their family members and their neighbors about getting vaccinated, and they’re armed with all the knowledge,” she said.

Dina Tillman, who owns Hello Bonita Salon in Baltimore City’s Pigtown neighborhood, said that participating in this program has provided access to health care for her clients who are often too busy to see a doctor. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

Hello Bonita participated in Kaiser Permanente’s Good Health & Great Hair program before the pandemic, offering cancer and blood pressure screenings and flu vaccine clinics before this new partnership with the Maryland Department of Health.

“A lot of the women that sit in my chair, they’ll get their hair done every six weeks but they will not go to the doctor because they don’t have time,” said Tillman. “So this makes it … available for them; it’s right in their community; it’s right on their stop home. They can pop in get what they need and go home and make sure that they’re taking care of themselves.”

According to Maryland Department of Health spokesman Charles Gischlar, Maryland has had about 2,500 post-vaccination infections, or positive cases that occur at least 14 days after the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or the single-dose Johnson&Johnson vaccine.

Asked how participants can combat arguments against getting the vaccine, including recent reports that people who have been fully vaccinated are still becoming infected, Gischlar said that the majority of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are from unvaccinated populations.

“You’ve heard the CDC director, you’ve heard [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director] Dr. [Anthony] Fauci ― heard everybody say this has now become a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” said Martin. “That is what it is. People have got to realize that.”

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