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NPR's 'Short Wave': Doctor Finds Hope In Helping Inform And Vaccinate Her Community

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At this point in the pandemic, basically anyone 5 and older who wants protection against the coronavirus can get vaccinated. But hospitals are overwhelmed with unvaccinated patients in need of critical care and even dying from COVID. Emily Kwong, host of NPR's Short Wave podcast, was interested in efforts to reach unvaccinated people. So she called Dr. Jasmine Marcelin, an infectious disease specialist in Omaha who treats serious COVID cases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: After the vaccines came out last year, things still weren't OK at the hospital. Dr. Jasmine Marcelin was treating a disproportionate number of Black and Latino patients - patients who weren't vaccinated. And it bothered her because by the time someone gets to her, their case of COVID is serious. So she had to dig deep and do something she didn't learn in medical school - community organizing.

JASMINE MARCELIN: I texted a few people, and I sent a couple of emails complaining. And then a couple folks responded to me. And then I said, can we meet to talk about it? And so then the next thing you know, we had a Zoom call with several of my physician colleagues, other community members, religious leaders, and we just called ourselves a community COVID collaborative. We didn't even have, like, a fancy name, but we all had the same goal of trying to figure out how we can get vaccines to our community.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: Dr. Marcelin started making more phone calls, discussing how to bring the vaccine to more places in Omaha and how to work on the front end of this pandemic and intercept people before they ever got so sick that the hospital was their only option.

MARCELIN: One encounter that stands out to me was with a group of young people who were protesting the vaccine. This young man said to me, I don't understand where y'all came from. You never paid attention to us, and then suddenly there's a pandemic, and then now all of a sudden, y'all are everywhere and you want to be giving us vaccines. Where were you before? What could I say to that, right? Because where have the medical institutions been before? In the last, you know, 50, 60 years, an epidemic of hypertension, diabetes, you know, asthma, all sorts of other diseases - people are feeling like they're just being neglected, right? Can you blame somebody who is skeptical of vans coming into a community where the people who are giving vaccines don't look like them and they're coming in and saying you must get vaccinated? And so what does that mean in the grand scheme of things? It means that we have to do a better job as health care professionals to get into the community before there is an emergency.

KWONG: People who have concerns about the vaccine aren't a monolith. Everyone has their own reasons for waiting and wondering. And to get through to them, Dr. Jasmine Marcelin gives them her time. She posts up at vaccine clinics around the community - administering the shot, yeah, but also asking and answering a lot of questions.

MARCELIN: It brings me joy because a lot of them just need somebody to answer their specific questions, you know? It's not about trying to anticipate what their potential bias against vaccines might be because they may not have one. They may just not understand how it works, or maybe they are confused because there's a lot of disinformation, misinformation and, quite frankly, very confusing science communication, right? And so having a person that can sit down with them right there and help them work through that, and then if they are at the stage of wanting it at the end of that conversation, then they can go and get that shot immediately - it's just an amazing feeling to be a part of that and contribute to that.

KWONG: I have a relative who is the only unvaccinated person in our whole family. And I think everyone's kind of given up. But I also don't know if anyone's really tried. He's hesitant for so many reasons. And at the end of the day, I don't want to argue with him. I don't want him to get hurt. How would you approach a conversation with somebody who was not vaccinated at all and maybe hasn't had the chance to even think about it in a safe way? What do you say to people?

MARCELIN: I've had many of these conversations, and I think the first place that I start is just asking them what they think about COVID in general, and that helps me to get a sense of how bad does that person really think this pandemic is and whether or not it will affect them or others that they care about. And I just sort of ask gently, so what's keeping you from being vaccinated, or what's the thing that's stopping you the most? And then I just keep asking, what else, and then see if we can peel back some of those layers.

The other thing that is important is, you know, a lot of times, these conversations can't be resolved in just one - in one discussion, right? And...

KWONG: You can't make one intervening phone call.

MARCELIN: Yeah, yeah, no. I have not been successful with that. What I have been successful with is having a conversation where there is no expectations at the end of it that I am trying to get that person vaccinated, and they have no expectations that I am trying to get them vaccinated, and we're just kind of having a conversation. And if I hear the words, huh, I didn't think about it like that, then I feel good. I - this is a win for me, because then I know that they have perhaps moved from, I don't want to talk about it, to, maybe there is some merit, and we can continue having those conversations.

KWONG: Yeah. And have you had these sorts of conversations with people in your own family?

MARCELIN: My parents live in Dominica. And when the pandemic was progressing and we were talking about vaccines - and they weren't quite ready to get vaccines yet in the Caribbean. But I learned after that that my dad was concerned and he wasn't sure about the vaccine. And when I took that time to explain it to him, it made sense to him. And I thought that was great, but what I loved from hearing that was down the line, now he's talking to people about the vaccines, and he's sharing.

KWONG: Wow.

MARCELIN: And then when he tells me that somebody says, huh, I didn't think about it that way, that lights my fire, because it's like, all right, so this is now multiple degrees of separation where people are starting to think about why getting vaccinated is important not only for them but for, you know, the people that they love.

SHAPIRO: That was Dr. Jasmine Marcelin, infectious disease specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in conversation with Emily Kwong for NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. You can find the program on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF JANET OVERFIELD'S "LIFT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.