When COVID-19 vaccines became available, many people were rushing to get in line, while others were more hesitant. Othello Station Pharmacy owner, Ahmed Ali, along with his diverse staff, have worked to ease the minds of their patients in a culturally sensitive way.
Othello Station Pharmacy is located at the heart of Seattle, which is in one of the most diverse counties in the state. Ali’s multilingual staff mirrors this diversity. In total, there are eight languages spoken by the staff at Othello Station Pharmacy.
The diversity of his staff has been a key part of the pharmacy’s efforts to vaccinate community members who were initially feeling hesitant about the vaccine.
“It would have been very difficult if we were not culturally sensitive,” Ali said. “There’s also the religious aspect of some communities. The Muslim community was concerned about whether the vaccine contains gelatin.”
“That’s the work that independent pharmacies are able to do that I think other pharmacies aren’t able to.”
Before the pandemic, when the pharmacy first opened, Ali understood that a diverse staff would be required to work with the community he was operating in. People can call in and speak their native language and they can feel understood.
“That’s the work that independent pharmacies are able to do that I think other pharmacies aren’t able to,” Ali said.
When the COVID-19 vaccines were first released, there were new challenges and some of them went beyond a language barrier. There were also general concerns from patients about the efficacy and safety of the vaccine, not to mention a limited supply.
“We ensured that families and seniors had access to the vaccine in a very easy and equitable way,” Ali said. “If folks need to walk in to make an appointment, they should be able to do that. If they need to call us to make an appointment for get the vaccine, they should be able to do that.”
Ali and his staff, along with the help of community partners, put in a lot of effort to show people that the vaccine was safe.
Misinformation on social media still posed a challenge despite the trust Ali has worked hard to build.
“We heard so many myths that we really had to debunk. We had to educate the community and make them understand the process of how the vaccines were developed, how long it takes, how is it different from a typical vaccine development process,” Ali said.
Ali and his staff have been a part of weekly conversations about the vaccine to educate patients. Ali also showed people it was safe by filming himself receiving the vaccine and then sharing the video everywhere he could.
“That made it easier for a lot of people,” Ali said.
“The approach was very simple, ‘let’s do what community pharmacy is really good at,’ which is meeting people where they are.”
Along with providing information and culturally sensitive care, there was another piece to the puzzle, and that was setting up vaccine clinics throughout the county.
“The approach was very simple, ‘let’s do what community pharmacy is really good at,’ which is meeting people where they are,” Ali said.
One of the challenges to providing vaccines was that some people were not able to make appointments, others couldn’t get to the pharmacy and some wanted to get vaccines on the weekend.
By utilizing walk-in pop-up clinics and working closely with community leaders, Ali said, “We were able to adapt to those needs specifically.”
To date, Ali and his staff have vaccinated about 10,000 people with about 40 to 50 still walking in daily. People are now able to select the vaccine of their choice and appointments are no longer needed at Othello Station Pharmacy.
Ali said if he were to share advice with other pharmacies interested in offering a pop-up clinic, he would suggest the pharmacy connect with the community first. This includes working with ambassadors from the community to speak with people at community centers and share important details before arriving.
“It takes more than just the staff from the pharmacy to administer the vaccine, it’s a process that involves multiple different people,” Ali said.
Ali offers a great example of how beneficial community building can be for a pharmacy and during a public health crisis. He strongly credits pharmacists across the country for the role they have played in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think we would still be in a very different place if pharmacies and individual pharmacy owners had not taken the pandemic seriously and not played a significant role,” Ali said.