Stacey Roundtree, a Sedgwick County COVID Ambassador, holds educational materials from backpacks given to participants at the COVID-19 Vaccine Incentive Clinic at the Sedgwick County Health Department on Oct. 16. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)
Stacey Roundtree, a Sedgwick County COVID Ambassador, holds educational materials from backpacks given to participants at the COVID-19 Vaccine Incentive Clinic at the Sedgwick County Health Department on Oct. 16. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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Mark Ayres considers himself a conservative. 

But that doesn’t mean he’s not vaccinated. 

It’s something he’s found himself repeating in conversations as a recently-trained Sedgwick County COVID Ambassador — a new county program training people to communicate information about COVID-19 and vaccinations. 

“The pathogen could care less what my political beliefs are,” Ayres said. “We’re not talking about a tax bill or defense bill or environmental bill.” 

He is one of 32 people, 15 of whom work for the county, who have gone through the COVID Ambassador training, which began in August. Sedgwick County officials hope the program can help hoist the county’s 54% vaccination rate and beat back vaccine misinformation by reaching residents through their peers instead of government agencies. 

“I can be on TV, and that is OK for some people, but other people look at me and they don’t know me,” said Adrienne Byrne, director of the Sedgwick County Health Department. “I’m not their pastor, I’m not their doctor. We know how important it is to have individuals out in the community.” 

The program thus far has cost about $17,000, which comes from the county’s general fund. The county has enough supplies for 35 ambassadors.

While still in its infancy, the program reflects other community-based efforts around the country, said Elizabeth Ablah, a professor in the Department of Population Health at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita. In Wichita, several of the programs focus on people of color. 

“​​It’s really based in community-based participatory research, where we have specific communities that we are working with as researchers or educational institutions,” Ablah said. “It’s based on trust and on intentional engagement.”

Mary Ricketts, CEO of Turning Point Training & Development, delivers tips during a COVID Ambassador training program at the Sedgwick County Extension Office on Oct. 12. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

What are Sedgwick County COVID Ambassadors?

Mary Ricketts has heard it all. 

There’s a chip in the vaccine. It will cause infertility. Getting the vaccine gives you COVID-19

In response, she has one thing to say: “I understand your concern.”

This is one of the primary lessons Ricketts, CEO of Overland Park-based Turning Point Training & Development, teaches in the two hour COVID Ambassador training she designed: It’s important for the ambassadors to listen and verbalize the concerns of those hesitant about COVID vaccines. 

The initial training mainly provides instruction — and practice — on discussing vaccines with people reluctant to get them. It also provides information about the vaccines and COVID testing in Sedgwick County.

After the initial training, ambassadors can attend a virtual session on the first and third Wednesdays of each month to share their progress and receive additional training. Byrne said these follow-up sessions may include topics such as cultural awareness and unconscious bias training. 

Byrne said she also hopes to integrate COVID Ambassadors into the county’s events-based vaccination programs, which take a mobile clinic to the Sedgwick County Zoo and baseball games. 

Can Sedgwick County COVID Ambassadors reduce vaccine hesitancy?

Ayres said his conversations haven’t yet resulted in someone getting vaccinated — and Byrne said this held true for the program at large. But Ricketts said vaccination may not happen after the first conversation.

“If there’s four or five of us that happen to run into the same individual, maybe by the time they get to the third or fourth one, they might be ready,” Ricketts said. 

The Sedgwick County Health Department observed this pattern at some vaccination clinics operating for several weeks at the same location, such as local food banks. Based on surveys of visitors to those clinics, Deputy Health Department Director Christine Steward said people typically got vaccinated on their first visit — or their fourth. 

“There was a spike the fourth time,” Steward said. “The nurses that go there have said that they think that people, they got comfortable with them (after) several times of going there.”

For now, Ricketts is counting other victories: A COVID Ambassador who convinced someone to sit with them for a conversation about the vaccine for the first time. A Wichita State University student who was inspired to spread the information from the training to his peers. 

In terms of successes, Byrne also pointed to surveys showing increased confidence among COVID Ambassadors in discussing the virus and vaccinations with the public.

‘Everyday people’ featured in other Sedgwick County COVID literacy efforts

Sedgwick County isn’t the only local effort focused on peer-to-peer COVID communications. In 2020, the Wichita Black Alliance and the Wichita African American Council of Elders used federal funding to create #FactsnotFear. The outreach campaign aimed to curb the spread of COVID-19 among Black residents of the county with, among other things, video and audio commercials.

“Our strategy was about providing health literacy, and its messengers actually being from within the Black community,” said Ti’Juana Hardwell, project manager of #FactsnotFear. “We were very intentional about using everyday people in the commercials.”

Featuring Black residents, doctors and nurses had an impact, according to a survey about #FactsnotFear campaign. Over 80% of respondents said their presence in commercials was very important to them — and 67% of respondents said the campaign changed their thoughts and behaviors about the disease. 

This summer, the City of Wichita received a $4 million grant in partnership with the Wichita Black Alliance and other community organizations to expand #FactsnotFear to reach Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans in the county. The new program is called  #FactsnotFearICT.

“I’ll go so far to say it’s the same (as COVID Ambassadors),” said Angeline Johnson, the project administrator for #FactsnotFearICT. “There’s a lot of distrust that exists. Where you get trust is with those you know.”

Success of Sedgwick County COVID Ambassadors depends on diverse trainees

Ricketts said the COVID Ambassadors program will be more impactful if it includes diverse participants. 

“The challenge can be, ‘What if I don’t have ambassadors in the most vulnerable communities?’” Ricketts said.

But the health department does not closely track the demographics of ambassadors. 

“As we see gaps of there not being representation of all people in our community, we will develop a strategy with how to reach out and see if we can get people at the table,” Byrne said. 

Ablah also said COVID Ambassadors isn’t the end-all-be-all for overcoming vaccine hesitancy. But one person providing the correct information to peers is a great first step, she said. 

“When all messages are incorrect, and that is the only person that you’re hearing giving a different message — then that’s an opening,” Ablah said.  

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Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership...