In this episode we talk with Monife Stout, Director of the Territorial Immunization Program for the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health. We will discuss the important alliance between public health communicators and immunization professionals and ways we can work more effectively together.
Public Health Speaks (Episode 5) Interview Transcript
Title: Aligning Public Health Communications and Immunization Programs for Greater Success
Run Time: 13:47
Robert Jennings: Joining me today is Monife Stout. Monife is the Territorial Director of the Immunization Program for the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health. She has been a public servant for the past 16 years and has a background in leading public relations departments in government and in the nonprofit sector. Her current role with the Department of Health began in 2019. This career change has provided an opportunity for her to use her skills in various aspects of program management. Welcome Monife.
Monife Stout: Good morning. Thank you.
Robert Jennings: I just want to say that it's rare that we get a chance to talk with our colleagues from the Islands, so I am just so excited to have you.
Monife Stout: Well, I'm excited to be here. Thank you so much for the opportunity to allow the U.S. Virgin Islands to share their experiences in communications. Particularly in regard to this pandemic and everything that we've been going through. It's a wonderful opportunity. Thank you.
Robert Jennings: Welcome again and we might as well start off by pointing out that August is National Immunization Awareness Month.
Monife Stout: It is, isn't it?
Robert Jennings: Yes. And we know that vaccines save lives. So can you talk a little bit about the increased emphasis on immunizations in our country, especially in the context of a worldwide pandemic?
Monife Stout: Sure. So what we've noticed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and then the public or the response jurisdiction or response to it through offering vaccinations, we've noticed that annual vaccines for both adults and children had significantly decreased. And that's what the understanding of it being the same across the nation.
So we share this experience and considering the fact that all vaccines are important, annual vaccines, as well as the COVID-19 vaccine. We decided that this month, we're really going to focus on that annual vaccine piece and channel our communication to talk about or make sure that we urge persons to consider the importance of all vaccines across the board and to maintain those annual vaccinations, as well as considering the COVID-19 vaccine. We realize it's a lot, but that public education piece and narrowing the messaging.
Robert Jennings: So that's a big job because we have a narrow focus right now with everything being COVID, but people really need to remember to get those other vaccinations because they're so critically important. So, how are vaccines generally received in the Virgin Islands? Do you find as much hesitancy on the Islands as there is on the mainland?
Monife Stout: Overarchingly, we do have good reception of vaccines. I mean, historically, vaccines are just a part of our healthcare practice and is typically received. But we’ve found that in the past year, even before the pandemic, there were a higher number of exemptions for adults. And then with the COVID-19 vaccine, there was some hesitancy. I'm cautious about using the word significant because we did surprisingly have more people who were interested in it when it when the vaccines initially became available.
And then as we started administering vaccine, the areas of pockets of hesitancy became more apparent. So it's hard to kind of place the one word that fully described our level of hesitancy. I wouldn't use significant. I would probably use moderate, but enough for us to be concerned. So it is something that we are addressing specifically and we have some mechanisms in place to deal with that.
Robert Jennings: Is it across the board there, the skepticism or the hesitancy, or is there like one main issue that comes to the top? Or is it just a variety of things like safety?
Monife Stout: It's a variety of things. It's like with everyone else across the nation, how fast it rolled out. There was a need for some more public education partnering with our medical director as that key person or that key spokesperson, that professional who specifically deals with immunizations and internal medicine and speaking to those persons. It was a wide range.
Robert Jennings: So the COVID-19 pandemic has created an important alliance between immunization program professionals and public health communicators. Why do you think it's so important to align those two public health responsibilities?
Monife Stout: And that's simply because we actually speak the same language. I don't know why there's seemingly some disparity between the two but there is enough commonality for us to be able to be quite effective in the message we want to get across especially now. And I think putting aside those suppose disparities or disconnect, which I still can't identify where that could possibly be. We can work together to make sure that we are actually helping people by educating them about the importance of vaccine and really getting the message across to those who need to hear it the most. So that partnership is integral and having the need to put those discrepancies aside.
Robert Jennings: Yeah. And sometimes it's just a matter of just pointing out that, hey, we really need to talk because we have the information that you need to get out to the public. So what were some of the biggest challenges you faced at the beginning of the pandemic to ensure communication of key information? And how did you work to address those challenges?
Monife Stout: Oh, wow! Our biggest challenge really was sending the message that the vaccines are safe and explaining why the vaccines were produced so quickly and coupling those two messages together. And what we had to do was take the grassroots approach. We got on every radio station, every podcast, we met with reporters, did public speaking engagements, brought the message to the people in a myriad of ways. And it was quite effective because we started seeing uptick in our vaccinations.
Robert Jennings: So, I'm going to step back a little bit, because we were talking about public health communicators and the program immunization program folks working together. What is one strategy or best practice for working across departments that you wish you'd implemented earlier, or that should be adopted today?
Monife Stout: I would say to meet even sooner. I think things were evolving so quickly with the rollout of the vaccine. With the onset of the pandemic, there was so much information, it was information overload. And I think if we had been able to stop a minute, get together, look at what message we needed to send and do that across the board. It would have avoided the need to do so much extra to reach those different communities and to address persons who were hesitant or on the fence.
Robert Jennings: So what is the mindset of Islanders when they hear about masking, you know, go from wearing masks to not wearing masks and the messages coming out that might seem like they're disconnected? Is there concern about the messaging from your standpoint, or do you think we're doing the right thing by when new information becomes available we adjust and pivot based on that new info?
Monife Stout: We do adjust and pivot. We actually comply very well. Our governor has been doing an excellent job with communicating what the new mandates are, what the requirements are, what the suggestions are. He allows the department representatives, specifically our commissioner, our medical director, our epidemiologist to be on his weekly, press briefings and shares the information.
So when mandates are put out, there's not a lot of kickback. Of course, you know, how portions of the community and persons who will, I think that goes without saying. But the universal kickback is not there because our governor makes a point to couple those mandates with information. So as persons are considering what's coming next or what's required of them, there is a backing to the reason why, and it makes sense. So that's a really crucial way to communicate when you're having to give a directive and pairing that with the reason why. And I think because we're doing that, it's helping us to be effective with persons compliance more so than not.
Robert Jennings: So finally, I just want to ask you what immunization and communication issues do you anticipate facing over the next several months and what are your thoughts on how our two disciplines, the immunization programs and public health communicators? What could, should we be doing to prepare to handle them?
Monife Stout: So I would say that it's an issue of inclusion, if you will. The communications team needs to be much more included in what's going on in immunization and immunization needs to allow the communications team to do just that, to communicate. And there needs to be some liberties or freedoms on both ends in terms of understanding what the message is and how best to communicate that to the public. Anticipated challenges moving forward would be just that. We have been faced with a lot of miscommunication about vaccinations, which has affected the trust issue that I mentioned earlier.
And being that trust is the common thread and the issue that must be addressed or overcome by those who are hesitant, immunization and communication need to definitely work together to remove that mistrust and make sure that information is accurate and intervene if there is any area of misinformation.
We can't really project what's coming. I mean, there's the variant. And then there are persons who have their own ideas or conspiracy theories about how it came about. And who's responsible. That's not for us to get involved in. We need to just focus on making sure that our message is clear and concise and that we're on the same page about it. So, you know, there needs to be a mutual understanding of what's going on.
Robert Jennings: Well, I said that that was going to be the last question, but you just brought one more thing that I do want to ask you. You brought up misinformation and disinformation a lot. And you talked about how, you know, our communications has to be accurate and timely. What would be, if you could, change things, what would you do to address misinformation? What do you think we can start doing to address some of this misinformation that we have to deal with on a daily basis?
Monife Stout: I would say to be really aggressive with a communication campaign about what vaccines are, how effective they are. And also to allow a much more of an audience with persons who can answer specific questions and reiterate that they're always going to be persons who are going to have their mind made up about what they want to know and understand, but then we always have to consider that percentage is actually quite small.
There are more persons who just really need to know or have their age, their questions answered. And if we do that, it will change a lot. It would allow them to at least make an educated decision for themselves, which is what we do.
Robert Jennings: Well, Monife, I will let that be the last word and thank you so much for joining me today.
Monife Stout: Thank you for having me. I hope I answered all your questions.
Robert Jennings: You did and I want to say continued good luck with everything you're doing there. Okay.
Monife Stout: Thank you so much.