A Rutgers study published earlier this month in JAMA Network Open found that although those in predominantly Black and Latinx communities in New Jersey doggedly researched the novel coronavirus and readily adopted mandated health guidelines, many still felt a sense of distrust about the approved COVID-19 vaccines.

Manny Jimenez, assistant professor of pediatrics, family medicine, and community health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said he and his fellow co-authors focused on four counties in the Garden State with higher percentages of these residents, hit earliest and hardest by the pandemic: Essex, Middlesex, Passaic, and Union.

In early June, the state announced it would be closing its vaccine mega-sites in favor of a "community-based" approach targeting many of these communities.

The Rutgers researchers sought to hear, from more than 100 people living in those places, what they learned from their first-wave experience, and found that the stress of almost immediate losses prompted strict adherence to mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand washing.

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"Even in that context, there was still skepticism about the vaccine, and they had unanswered questions around how it was developed, what the side effects would be," Jimenez said.

Interviews were conducted in November 2020, about a month before the first vaccines became available in the United States, and then again in early February, which Rutgers acknowledged could reflect different attitudes than current ones.

Still, some of the quotes collected "occur in this sort of broader context of experiences that both individuals have experienced themselves, but also perhaps relatives or people in the past from their community," Jimenez said.

"I have people close to me die, someone very dear," one respondent said. "But at the same time, we're all different far as it's [the vaccine] going to affect us differently. So with these adverse outcomes, it may ... we may react to it differently. So I'm really concerned about that."

"They had gave this vaccine to a woman, I think, in another country," another participant said, recalling a CNN report. "I can't recall exactly where, but they were saying that she may have some fertility issues."

With the passage of time, allowing more people to get vaccinated and demonstrate the rarity of severe side effects, Jimenez said some of those questions, particularly about the speed with which the shots were developed, can be adequately answered.

Whether that message can be effectively delivered, meanwhile, is a lingering worry.

"One of the things that we've really identified is the need to engage trusted people in helping to communicate that information, whether it's community leaders or health professionals," Jimenez said.

For Spanish-speaking New Jerseyans, the carriers of that information have also needed to conquer a language barrier. The issue first became apparent when trying to encourage people to get tested for COVID, and continues now in Rutgers' next phase of research into vaccine hesitancy.

Jimenez said it has been "critical" from the start that messages are disseminated in the languages their targets speak.

"I think a lot of those lessons can also be applied to vaccine outreach as well, though," he said. "So again, clear, concise communication."

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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