Vaccine Distrust Gets a Trim

Program to Make Barbers and Stylists Ambassadors for Public Health Goes Nationwide
By Chris Carroll | Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle

Joanne Long sat back at the Capitol Heights, Md., salon where she’s been a regular for 15 years and prepared herself—not for a new look, but potentially to save her own life. She’d finally decided to take the advice of Tre Shadez owner Katrina Randolph and accept a COVID-19 vaccination.

“Trina’s kept working on me, so that’s why I’m here,” Long said after a nurse from Luminis Health gave her a shot, along with more than 30 other mainly Black and Latino local residents one afternoon in June.

Randolph is one of three Prince George’s County stylists and barbers partnering with the University of Maryland’s Health Advocates in Reach and Research (HAIR) program. It’s mobilizing these trusted members of communities of color to promote health and bring needed change in places where “business as usual means people live sicker and die younger,” says Stephen Thomas, a professor of health policy and management and director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity who founded HAIR.

“We’re not at Six Flags doing vaccinations any longer, we’re now at the hyperlocal, and in some cases, we’re at the ‘hell, no’ wall for people,” Thomas says. Overcoming such resistance requires a relaxed, safe place for people to discuss their reservations about vaccination.

What started 15 years ago to encourage preventative health care like cancer and blood pressure screenings was quickly re-outfitted early in the pandemic to promote testing, and later, vaccinations. In majority-Black Prince George’s County, vaccine hesitancy—along with real transportation difficulties for some low-income or older residents, Thomas points out—has contributed to a vaccination rate that lags behind Maryland’s.

Now, HAIR is growing nationwide, with President Joe Biden in June announcing “Shots at the Shop,” a program to train 1,000 barbers and stylists from Black, Latino and other communities to dispel myths about COVID-19 vaccination. UMD is sharing not only the inspiration for the program but also its expertise through the training platform and curriculum. Thomas sees the potential of making inroads in a variety of health issues driven by racial and economic disparities.

Randolph said most adult customers like Long eventually come around—their main reservations stem from how fast a coronavirus vaccine was developed. It’s youngsters who are more of a challenge, she says.

“You hear things like, ‘They want to decrease the Black population,’ ‘They want to put a chip in you to track you’—all kinds of crazy mess,” Randolph says. “They’re just going by what they hear on social media, and I try to encourage them that if they’re going to take any advice—because this is a life-and-death situation—at least get the information from the professionals.”


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