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'We have to ask why' | NSU professor researches COVID's impact on minority, underserved communities

More than 5 and a half million Virginians have at least one dose of an available COVID-19 vaccine.

NORFOLK, Va. — As the number of vaccinations slowly climbs in Virginia, an assistant professor at Norfolk State University wants to understand what’s keeping people from getting their first dose. 

"Equity is about fairness and justice, it’s different from equality," said Dr. Sharon Alston. "Equality is the opportunity for everyone to get the same resources. But equity is realizing that people are in different places, they don’t all start at the same place."

Dr. Alston is an assistant professor at NSU, and also an interdisciplinary research leader with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A recent grant is allowing her to research and look at how the pandemic has impacted marginalized and underserved communities, by studying the vaccine hesitancy that may still exist among certain populations.

Her two areas of study will be the Norfolk area and Hampton Roads, as well as New York City. 

“Framing questions that get to the heart of what families are experiencing. For the pandemic: how is information being disseminated about the impact of COVID? What's the availability of information to COVID? Where can they access resources like testing and vaccinations," Dr. Alston said. 

Right now, this research is in the data gathering stages, according to Dr. Alston. The research will be based on a series of survey questions that ask people whether they've been vaccinated or not, and their beliefs behind making that decision.

“Questions are specific about whether they’d take a vaccination [and] if so which one, and why? If they choose not to, then why not? Why will they not be vaccinated?" Dr. Alston said. 

More and more Virginians receive their doses every day, with the state averaging roughly 15,000 vaccinations per day, and more than 5 million Virginians are fully vaccinated. Still, as previously reported by 13News Now, large portions of certain population groups remain unvaccinated in both the state and in Hampton Roads. 

At a vaccination clinic Monday afternoon in the Seatack neighborhood of Virginia Beach, fewer than 20 people showed up. But for Bob Engle, Emergency Coordinator for the Virginia Beach Health District, the smaller vaccination turnouts are what's expected, but just as important. 

“These communities are in areas that show lower vaccination rates, that’s how we’re trying to reach out and have people get the vaccine," Engle said. 

Dr. Alston's research is expected to take around six months, and she believes the research learned from both areas of New York City (Queens, more specifically) and Hampton Roads can cut the unvaccinated population. 

“Whether it’s Norfolk, Hampton Roads, New York City, or Washington D.C., that’s just geography. It's happening to African American communities everywhere," Dr. Alston said. 

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