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COVID-19 vaccines: a community engagement approach

Vector image a diverse group of people who have recently received a vaccine and have a plaster on their arm

There has never been a more important time for immunologists to engage with the public about vaccinations by listening to and addressing questions and concerns. While the BSI and our members are ideally placed to be expert sources of knowledge in these dialogues, working in partnership with organisations that support local communities is powerful in reaching wider audiences. Here, our Public Engagement Manager, Erika Aquino discusses our recent community engagement project in partnership with the London Borough of Bexley to amplify our mission to increase public understanding of the importance of COVID-19 vaccination. 

A key aim of the British Society for Immunology is to represent our members and provide a strong voice on topics of immunology that benefit the public. The BSI collaborated with the London Borough of Bexley and Bexley Voluntary Services Council on a pilot programme to train ‘vaccine champions’ both within local community groups and in health/social care worker groups to have effective conversations with their peers about COVID-19 vaccines.

What was the aim of the project?

The programme was developed to train people who hold social capital in communities within the Borough by combining our expertise in immunology with the expertise of the local area and people. We provided them with the tools to have effective conversations about COVID-19 vaccines with their families, friends, colleagues and contacts, thus developing a network of vaccine champions and ultimately driving vaccine uptake.

How did the training work?

We ran the training programme online through April to July 2021 and sessions were led primarily by BSI members who were skilled communicators, with appearances from local community leaders, such as faith leaders, and local healthcare professionals, such as GPs. The course content focused on developing understanding of how vaccines work and why they are important, as well as skills on how to actively listen to and answer specific questions and concerns.

The sessions were user-led, meaning that participants shared key questions they and their communities had on COVID-19 vaccines and the course content was adapted to address these. For example, when concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines affecting fertility were raised as a common reason for vaccine hesitancy, we invited expert reproductive immunologist, Dr Viki Male, to explain the latest evidence on vaccine safety and answer questions. When news about the very rare blood clotting side effect of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine emerged and guidance kept changing, the groups wanted more information and we ran a session about how to frame the risk of side effects versus risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and how to communicate with younger people. Participants could then confidently share that information. Sessions were supported by our public-friendly resources that participants could use, which you can find here.

What were the outcomes and impacts for participants?

Participants were very positive about their experiences of the training, with 100% of the community leaders feeling better informed, more knowledgeable and more confident about having effective conversations about COVID-19 vaccinations. The health/social care workers were also positive about the training with 91% reporting that they felt better informed and more knowledgeable about COVID-19 vaccines, while 85% said that they felt more confident about having effective conversations. All community leaders and 70% of health/social care workers reported having increased the number of people they talked to about COVID-19 vaccines.

After each session, participants were invited to provide anonymous feedback and comments were used to inform future training. Participants enjoyed the training sessions, noting how informative, interesting and helpful they were and praised the accessible language used by immunologists delivering the sessions. The health/social care worker groups valued having up-to-date, clear information that was helpful to share with their colleagues during an uncertain time in their working environment. Building a safe and trusted space allowed everyone to explore different views about vaccines without judgement.

"I just wanted to say how amazing the training was and how well organised it was. I certainly learned a lot and have much more information to pass on to my community. It was fantastic to have such eminent speakers engaging with our small local group. Congratulations to all involved in planning and delivering the training.” Community leader participant

What were the outcomes and impacts for the BSI?

The immunologists involved in delivering the training enjoyed the experience and found it useful to hear diverse perspectives on vaccines and prominent concerns. For some BSI members, this type of public engagement was challenging but it improved their communication skills and confidence in working with different audiences, and many repeated their sessions.

This innovative community engagement project was a new venture for the BSI and proved successful in creating vaccine champions in Bexley with the confidence to have conversations about COVID-19 vaccinations with their communities. Working in partnership with the London Borough of Bexley was key to the success of the project because of their knowledge of how to engage with their local community and their connections to diverse networks in the area.

It’s vital to work with community partners to reach individuals on the ground and for the public who are leaders in their communities and workplaces to have the knowledge, skills and the confidence to address vaccine concerns and have conversations with the people around them. The BSI is here to support everyone to become positive vaccine ambassadors.

Erika Aquino
Public Engagement Manager