Not so long ago, a vaccine for COVID-19 by year-end seemed unattainable. Now that it’s a reality, convincing people that the vaccine is safe may prove to be the bigger hurdle. But if anyone can help make it happen, it’s Yvonne Dixon.

yvonne dixon smiles
Yvonne Dixon

The licensed nurse with two master’s degrees is now in a nurse leader role. She heads Novant Health’s effort to identify gaps in health care in rural and low-income communities – often communities of color – and develop programs to help close those gaps.

It’s a challenging task in the best of times, but a mammoth one during a global pandemic that is disproportionately impacting communities of color. Given systemic racism in the U.S. (see the Tuskegee syphilis study) people of color are also disproportionally skeptical of the vaccine.

Dixon said she’s tackling what’s ahead “one bite at a time.”

So, let’s cut to the chase: Are you getting the vaccine?

Yes, I will. And so will my (adult) children. Here in my household, it’s my father and me. He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and is allergic to the flu vaccine, and physicians say people with an allergy to it probably shouldn’t get the COVID vaccine. They, at least, should talk to their primary care physician. And if you don't have a primary care physician – and a lot of people do not – then talk to a pharmacist.

My father won’t get the vaccine. I need to get it for him, and I need to get it for myself.

When it comes to everyone else, you can’t beat people over the head with your message. You start by asking questions. Most of the time, people just want to be heard. People want to feel validated. And when you start asking questions and then impart a little bit of awareness and some knowledge, you can hook people.

And the venues where you can share this information are limitless. Limitless! I was standing out on the porch – with my mask on – talking to the FedEx man while he was standing at the bottom of steps. I said, “I know you’ll be glad when this COVID is behind us.” And he said, “Yes, ma'am. I sure will.”

And I said, “Me, too. How’s it going for you?” And we started talking, and I said, “Well, do you think you might get the vaccine?” And he said, “Ma'am, I'm not too sure.”

I said, “Well, you might be delivering another package this way. If you’re still not too sure about it, you just tap at the door, and I'll come out and talk with you.” I did the same thing with my mailman.

Ha! You maneuver something about the vaccine into every conversation.

I do. You know, I just start talking and then just kind of slide it in there. Right now, more than ever, we really need to be more communicative with each other, to listen to each other.

Just this week someone said to me, “I hope, in five years, I don't look up at the TV and see a commercial with someone saying, ‘If you've had complications from the COVID vaccine, give us a call,’ and it's a law office.”

Wow. Did you have a response?

I sat and listened. That wasn't a time for me to just spew. I wanted that person to know I was listening. After I heard this person, I said, “You know, there are different ways to look at this. One is to ask yourself: Am I even going to be here in five years to see the commercial?”

The vaccine may ensure you are.

COVID-19 has changed your job. As Novant Health's director of health equity, what's your job like when there's not a pandemic?

Well, we’re actually addressing two pandemics. My goal is always to work toward attaining health equity for every individual. Health equity means everyone has the opportunity to be as healthy as possible. But even under normal conditions, we recognize that there are so many people who don’t have the highest level of health.

The first pandemic – the one we were already dealing with – is racism; it has impacted America for hundreds of years. And then we have the newer pandemic – COVID – that wreaks havoc on the body and has caused so many fatalities. The pandemic of COVID blew the lid off the racism pandemic and revealed how much work we have to do.

It seems almost insurmountable. When you think of the skepticism, doubt and fear about the COVID vaccine and realize there are valid reasons behind that – I mean, the government has not always been noble and honest in the past. What’s your strategy for counteracting that fear?

Trust is the paramount word. You know, how can we trust that the government is providing us with a vaccine that’s going to help eliminate COVID-19? There’s an understandable lack of trust, based upon previous historical data on things like the Tuskegee experiment. (From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. government withheld treatment of a group of poor Black men in Alabama to study the progression of syphilis. They were never informed of their diagnosis and were told instead they were receiving free health care.) But that's far from the only thing. There are other instances, as well.

Over the years, these stories get told within our (African-American) communities … and people hang on to those images. So, why would individuals trust that this time is different? Because of the science. If you follow Dr. Anthony Fauci – as I do – he says: Listen to the science.

Right now, we are providing vaccines to all races of people – not just one race of people. This pandemic has impacted every race of people in nearly every country.

How do you get the word out that this time is different – that people, especially people of color, can trust the government?

The vaccine has been thoroughly scrutinized, and it's being given to all races of people.

And when you deliver that message, on social media or in person, do people accept it?

You know, I think most do. And I think it’s in the delivery. I try to use humor. I start with humor before moving into a much more serious conversation – if the person cares to engage.

As a health care organization, we must be able to extend our open hands to our communities across all of our markets we serve, to help individuals understand: We're here to help you. It is paramount to show our communities they can trust us.

And I’ve seen in the news and on social media photos of your own front-line workers – doctors and nurses – getting the vaccine. And that alone helps build trust. I just met you, and I already trust you. But you’re just one person, and you can’t be everywhere.

It's important not only for us to talk – but to walk the talk. We must show people that we’re not just asking them to get the vaccine; we’re getting it ourselves.

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Photo caption:

Novant Health Director of Health Equity Yvonne Dixon is pictured at Rowan Medical Center on Dec. 23 getting the first of two doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Nurse Christie Harris is administering the shot.