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Vaccination lessons fuel future work by WVU School of Public Health

State leaders called upon WVU’s School of Public Health to assist with vaccination communications targeting minority communities and other key demographics.

As West Virginia leaders embarked upon the challenging task of vaccinating more than 1.5 million eligible residents against COVID-19, they called upon the West Virginia University School of Public Health to provide critical insights that would help target minority communities and other key demographics.

Now, the School of Public Health is building upon lessons learned from the vaccination effort as it works to train a growing number of future professionals and improve the state’s public health infrastructure.

Online surveys and focus groups conducted by Linda Alexander, senior associate dean for academic, student and faculty affairs for the School of Public Health, highlighted the need for targeted messaging geared toward specific demographic groups, including a minority audience.

Her findings revealed that minority communities often relied on personal faith to make their decisions, and they were eager for information from sources they could trust to help guide their choices. Her work also reiterated lingering health disparities – including poor health information and lack of access to health care – that have reduced trust in medical providers within communities of color.

“What I want people to know and take away from my work with minoritized communities is that these are resilient communities that are finding their way through this pandemic and through other things, like the opioid crisis and other issues, that often happen simultaneously,” Alexander said. “Understanding both the resilience of communities and that solutions are in communities, I think that will go a long way.”

Alexander noted that “the pandemic has informed students in a way that a textbook cannot,” imparting lessons about gaps in health care infrastructure, policy inequities and cultural humility – a process of reflection and discovery that involves self-awareness of personal and cultural biases.

“Cultural humility is very difficult to teach, but I think, in our current crisis, our students and communities at large have learned that the pandemic knew no particular political affiliation, no particular race or ethnic group; it was an equal opportunity disease,” Alexander said. “And a huge takeaway, I think, in public health is that not everything can be summarized into a moral weakness. Some things are beyond an individual’s control, and it’s important to have specific infrastructure and systems in place to ensure people can be adequately served in a crisis.”

•	Jeffrey Coben, dean of the WVU School of Public Health (left) and Linda Alexander, senior associate dean for academic, student and faculty affairs at the WVU School of Public Health (right)

Jeffrey Coben, dean of the WVU School of Public Health (left) and Linda Alexander, senior associate dean for academic, student and faculty affairs at the WVU School of Public Health (right).

Alexander is among several School of Public Health faculty members who joined the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Medical Advisory Group others to share their unique expertise in tackling public health challenges in West Virginia and the Appalachian region.

“We needed to have a coordinated place where good information could be shared, information could be put in the right context for West Virginians, educational materials could be developed, and we could serve in a way that would benefit all West Virginians,” School of Public Health Dean Jeffrey Coben said. “That work continues today as we work to really try to improve our vaccination efforts across the state.”

Jill Upson, executive director of the state’s Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs, said work by Alexander and others at the School of Public Health has made a difference in West Virginia’s COVID-19 response.

“Minority populations have borne a heavy burden throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Upson said. “Working with the WVU School of Public Health to deliver accurate and culturally competent messages to minority citizens has led to increased access to testing, treatment and information for those who need it most.”

Transcripts from Alexander’s focus groups are now being used to create medical simulations to help students in all health sciences disciplines learn how to better handle patient encounters. The School is also incorporating key takeaways from the vaccination effort into new and existing programs – not only for undergraduate and graduate students, but also for professionals working in the field.

Coben said the School of Public Health has seen a surge in applications over the past year and a half. As the School continues to grow and build upon the lessons of COVID-19, he noted that private support enhances educational opportunities for students. Existing resources have enabled students to engage with local communities more than ever before during the pandemic, assisting with testing sites, vaccination clinics, mask studies, public education efforts and more.

“West Virginia as a state is in desperate need of building up the infrastructure in public health; as the only accredited School of Public Health in the state of West Virginia, our mission is to help meet that need,” Coben said. “We are training the next generation of public health leaders for our state. These individuals will move into the health departments, they’ll move into the state Department of Health [and Human Resources]. And we desperately want to support those students in their journey by providing them with financial support that our donors can really help us with."

To explore opportunities to support the School of Public Health, contact Tiffany Walker-Samuels at  or 304-293-8604. All gifts are made through the  WVU Foundation , the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.

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