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Salons and barbershops can help get COVID-19 vaccines into arms | Opinion

For decades, salons and barbershops have promoted positive health practices without financial incentives.

Ann Cunningham (left), community member and volunteer, visits Peoples Barber Shop in Coatesville to encourage customers to get vaccinated on Friday, May 7, 2021.
Ann Cunningham (left), community member and volunteer, visits Peoples Barber Shop in Coatesville to encourage customers to get vaccinated on Friday, May 7, 2021.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

This month’s nationwide call to action to get more COVID-19 vaccine shots into arms included the first acknowledgment of the importance of barbershops and beauty salons in communities of color. A new initiative known as “Shots at the Shop” will engage Black-owned barbershops and salons to serve as health promoters and vaccine sites. In so doing, it reflects a movement within the personal-care industry that has been underway for many years. It also builds on prior local efforts before and during the pandemic. As a medical professional and community member, I can testify to the role that many barbershops and salons play as both cultural hubs and community assets.

Importantly, the new initiative — a partnership between the Biden administration, the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, the University of Maryland Center for Health Equity, and SheaMoisture — will provide economic support to participating shops ($1,000 each to 1,000 shops). Providing economic compensation to shops for health promotion work is new and welcome. For decades, salons and barbershops have promoted positive health practices without financial incentives. During the pandemic, many small businesses within communities of color, including barbershops and salons, received delayed or smaller financial relief in comparison with their non-Black counterparts. Despite this, many shops have continued to sacrifice for the betterment of their communities.

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Based on work with a group of salons and barbershops — and on my own experience cofounding an initiative called SHARP (Safe Haircuts as We Reopen Philadelphia) at the onset of the pandemic — I believe that shops are well-primed to increase vaccine uptake in communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

I recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and am now a first-year internal medicine resident at Baylor College of Medicine. As a young girl, I remember sitting patiently in the salon chair while my stylist cornrowed my hair into zigzag patterns. The soothing voice of my mother and stylist in deep conversation hastened the hours of hair-pulling that I experienced. At final reveal, I would smile broadly into the mirror, happy to see the perfect rows of neatly braided hair coursing across my scalp.

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Over the years and many salon visits later, I realized that I not only trusted my stylist with my hair but also trusted them with my problems. I even listened to their advice. During medical school, I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer at a barbershop/salon for a program called CUT Hypertension. This program for over a decade brought medical student volunteers from Penn into barbershops and salons to conduct blood pressure screenings and promote heart health.

During the pandemic, my team’s program, SHARP, worked with a group of barbershops and salons known as the Pennsylvania Professional Image Alliance to battle COVID-19. Together we created and implemented best practices for keeping customers, owners, operators, technicians, and the community safe. We also created an application for symptom screening of employees and customers, which further provided links to testing sites, methods for contact tracing, and quick responses to possible COVID-19 cases.

During that project, we learned a lot about vaccine hesitancy by surveying customers to assess their intention to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Of more than 400 respondents, 54% already took the vaccine, 22% reported that they intended to take the vaccine, and 24% were not interested in taking the vaccine. Compared with respondents who were interested in receiving the vaccine, respondents who were not interested were younger (average age 47 vs. 38, respectively), but had similar rates of comorbidities (55% vs. 59%, respectively).

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This information is critical for the shops as they look to engage in President Joe Biden’s call to action and serve as vaccine educators and sites for jabs in the arm, particularly for vaccine-hesitant youth. The shops serve a diverse array of customers, bringing in people from a variety of religious, socioeconomic, age, gender, and racial/ethnic backgrounds.

Barbershops and salons are uniquely positioned to address health-care disparities within their communities. Leveraging their position as trusted entities in the community, they can share accurate information about COVID-19 and the benefits of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine while also dispelling myths. This new, economically sustained call to action can be a model to improve health disparities for years to come.

Krystal Hill is an internal medicine resident at Baylor College of Medicine. She cofounded the SHARP program with Norrisa Haynes, a cardiology fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and Florence Momplaisir, senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania.