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Out Boulder County leans on compassion and faith to broach vaccine hesitancy in community

Out Boulder County launched two projects as part of its continuing vaccine outreach.
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Out Boulder County, or OBC, is leaning on compassion and faith to address hesitancy and apprehension about the COVID vaccine.

The LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit launched two projects this week as part of the organization's continuing vaccine outreach work. The first, a bilingual game to help guide discussions with vaccine-hesitant family and friends. The second, a plea to the unvaccinated from a collective of faith leaders urging compassion in fighting COVID.

“We continue to work to get people vaccinated in our community from any and every angle we can find,” said OBC Executive Director Mardi Moore.

Boulder County Public Health, or BCPH, announced Friday that the county has seen a significant jump in COVID cases. The rate jumped from 127.5 to 177 cases per 100,000 people in three days. The increase was coupled with 1.167 hospitalizations due to the virus. 

BCPH said the flu usually hospitalizes 275-500 people per week during peak season, however, these hospital stays last only a few weeks. The coronavirus hospitalizations last much longer, a BCPH news release states, and result in higher occupancy of ICU beds. 

“In the past few weeks, over 40% of ICU patients have been COVID-19 patients. And, COVID-19 is far more deadly. There have been 29 deaths due to COVID-19 in Boulder County since May 2021, 14 of which have occurred in October,” according to the news release. 

OBC Special Projects Manager Nate George took the reins on both outreach projects. With the outreach game, “Talking to Cousin Earl,” George said it started with the understanding that messaging targeting vaccine-hesitant people wasn’t working well and it was time to look for new methods.

“It was getting lost in the noise, it was being tuned out,” George said. “So, to help cut through that noise, we wanted to bring a novel approach to the conversation.”

That approach shifted the focus of messaging from telling people what to believe toward conversations to be had around a table with extended family at holidays or celebrations. OBC partnered with local creative agency Godot Communications, shifting marketing and sales tactics from products to addressing vaccine-hesitancy. 

The game involves Cousin Earl, a bear, making a series of statements doubting the efficacy of the COVID vaccine. Earl’s family of woodland creatures —a fox, mouse, unicorn, hedgehog and owl — offer a variety of responses to each statement, measured in empathy, facts and temperament. Each response to Earl is weighed into a metric of facts and empathy to fill an influence gauge and hopefully help Earl feel safer and more informed about vaccine safety.

“We believe that the right combination of sharing what we know, understanding that people are scared and recognizing that at the end of all this we still love Cousin Earl is the path to changing minds,” George said.

Cousin Earl is presented in both English and Spanish, including more than 7,500 words of dialogue that OBC developed to address the different angles and arguments the staff had heard over the past ten months — both for and against the vaccine. George said writing for some of the characters was cathartic for the team and including snark in the responses was fun, “even if it is ineffective in the game and in real life.”

George is hopeful the game could help players learn some communication methods to broach difficult subjects with family members in an empathetic and constructive way. The compassionate approach also led OBC to look to Boulder County’s faith communities for vaccine outreach.

“We know that faith leaders — priests, pastors, rabbis and imams — are trusted members of their community,” Moore said. “From the research that’s been done, they are trusted at a higher level than the government, surprise.”

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, 38% of vaccine-hesitant Americans who attend religious services a few times a year would be more likely to get vaccinated from a faith-based approach. In August, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church made a global statement on the safety of vaccines and urged Catholics all around the world to get the COVID vaccine, calling it “an act of love.” According to the Catholic News Agency and a Pew Research Institute survey, 82% of self-identified Catholics received at least one dose of the vaccine by September, the highest vaccination rates of religious groups in the U.S.

The CDC refers to this as the “trusted messenger” model — conduits of information for a community, which includes barbers, community leaders, teachers, journalists and family matriarchs in addition to faith leaders. OBC looked at the data behind the trusted messenger model and the number of individuals with faith-based beliefs, George said, and thought a message of faith could work where government messaging hadn’t yet.

Moore acknowledged that there are some religious institutions that are discouraging or condemning vaccines, but OBC wanted to reach out to approximately 60 churches with a plea to sign on to a joint statement about the safety and necessity of the COVID vaccine. Of the 60 churches, 22 faith leaders have signed their names to the joint statement.

“The value of compassion is clear across all the holy texts. Compassion for ourselves and for others,” George said.

The statement itself is presented in English, Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic, with the translation aided by some of the faith leaders signed onto the letter. The message itself is short and simple, addressing the definition of compassion and how it can apply to the community and vaccine safety. Rev. Nicole Garcia helped George and the OBC team craft the statement in partnership with the faith leaders. 

Senior Minister Sarah Verasco of United Church of Christ Longmont was one of the faith leaders who signed the statement, commending OBC for taking initiative.

“I think this pandemic has taught us that we are interdependent in a way that is surprising,” Verasco said. “What we do and how we do things really can affect other people and I think we all have a mutual interest and care in our community.”

OBC has been a vocal organization for vaccine equity and outreach, aiding Boulder County and El Comite with vaccine clinics, working with local youth and a continuous social media campaign. George was hopeful that continuing to speak on the subject of COVID vaccines through faith and compassion will help families and individuals broach concerns in a healthy way.

“The long term goal of course is to get people vaccinated against COVID-19 and to continue to be able to have these open conversations about public health issues with the individuals in our lives,” George said. “Public health is about all of us.”

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