UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Rx for vaccine confidence

UND’s Vax Venture program promotes vaccinations as key component of healthy living

During a flu shot clinic in Clifford Hall, members of the Vax Venture team were on hand to answer questions and distribute information on vaccines. From the left are Tanis Walch, Mary Labuhn, Bergen Stockstad, Claire Erickson and Soojung Kim. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today

Think of UND’s Vax Venture program as a team of superheroes led by intrepid researchers, dedicated to improving the health and well-being of students, faculty and staff.

Funded by the North Dakota Department of Health and Human Services, the program started on campus in the fall – just in time for the flu season. It’s headed by Tanis Walch, an associate professor in public health education in the College of Education & Human Development, Soojung Kim, associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication, and Jess Doty, director of Student Health Services.

UND student Brita Griffin gets a flu shot. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today

As an example of their activities, the team of graduate and undergraduate students held the Vax Venture Winter Fest on campus in December. The event was co-hosted by Vax Venture, the College of Education & Human Development and the Department of Communication and Student Health Services. Other sponsors include Deek’s Pizza and the Grand Forks Public Health Department.

Highlights of the event included free pizza, swag and giveaways, cookie decorating, games, a photo booth and making flu survival kits. The message was: Get vaccinated and don’t bring viruses home for the holidays. Vax Venture’s vaccine ambassadors were on hand to answer questions and distribute information.

A culture of trust

The purpose of the program at North Dakota’s institutions of higher education is to remind students, faculty and staff of the importance of getting vaccinated. One unfortunate casualty of the COVID pandemic has been public trust in information intended to help people make good decisions about their health care.

“The focus of this project really isn’t COVID,” said Walch, who conducted research on masking during the COVID pandemic. “It’s really all the other vaccinations and standard annual vaccinations you get that you don’t even question.”

For example, she said a farmer in rural North Dakota who stepped on a rusty nail would want to know if their tetanus shot – necessary every 10 years – was up to date.

“Our push and our goal is to make sure people are aware of their vaccine status and remind them of the history of vaccinations and why vaccinations are important,” Walch said.

This includes providing information on how vaccines are developed and how they’ve helped keep children and everyone else safe for many decades.

“The vaccines we rely on weren’t developed overnight,” Walch noted. “We and our children have been getting vaccinated for a very long time. We should trust those vaccinations, their history and the science behind them.”

Vaccine hesitancy

Kim is involved in the public information aspect of vaccines. After learning of Kim’s research for the Grand Forks Public Health Department on why some young people became hesitant to get the COVID vaccine, Walch enlisted her help with the Vax Venture project.

“Vaccinations we haven’t questioned for so long are now being questioned,” Walch said. “Using Dr. Kim’s research with COVID and understanding that the COVID vaccine is unique when compared to other vaccines, we’re now seeing a spill-over in which our traditional vaccines for children and older individuals are also being questioned.”

Soojung Kim (left), associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication, and Tanis Walch, an associate professor in public health education in the College of Education & Human Development, are researchers who teamed up to lead UND’s Vax Venture program. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today

Kim’s peer-reviewed research – titled “COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and short-term and long-term intentions among unvaccinated young adults: a mixed-method approach” – was recently published online by BMC Public Health. She also presented her findings at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting and expo Nov. 6-9 in Boston.

“Many of those hesitant individuals I did research on have a stronger trust in their local institutional sources, such as UND, the Grand Forks Herald or Grand Forks Public Health Department, when compared to national- or federal-level sources,” Kim said.

“We need to keep pursuing and sending out these messages because there’s so much conflicting information confusing people,” she added. “Having a stronger trust in the local- and institutional-level sources is a good thing moving forward.”

Communicating effectively

Kim’s study also explored how to effectively communicate timely, accurate information on vaccinations to the public by making use of digital and social media as a form of two-way communications, an approach not always used successfully during the COVID pandemic. On-campus events are also an important part of getting the word out to UND’s students, a key demographic group.

“It ultimately helps them make a confident decision,” Kim said. “Creating a culture of confidence through these events and having students confident about the vaccine development process, the distribution process and everything they’re questioning is going to help down the road. That’s our goal.”

Mary Labuhn (left), a Vax Venture research assistant, provides information on vaccinations during a flu shot clinic on campus  Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today

In addition to flu and COVID shots, Vax Venture is promoting the shingles vaccine for those over 50 and HPV vaccinations to prevent cervical cancer, as well as other vaccines to guard against Hepatitis B and mumps, measles and rubella (MMR).

“We are going to start working with Grand Forks Public Health and Altru Health Systems to combine efforts to increase vaccine confidence at UND and in the Grand Forks community and surrounding areas,” Walch said. “Starting in the spring semester, we will be hosting regular student events on campus, such as movie nights, craft nights, bingo and others.”

UND’s Vax Venture ambassadors

UND’s Vax Venture student ambassadors are: Eliana Malnourie, Hayward, Wis., a sophomore in public health education and American Indian Studies; Paige Synnott, Grand Forks, N.D., a junior in women and gender studies; Natalie Koster, Minnetonka, Minn., a senior in human nutrition;  Miranda Olson, St. Paul, Minn., a senior in public health education; Claire Wagner, Oakes, N.D., a senior in public health education; Rylee Bergeron, Lake Bronson, Minn., a junior in medical laboratory science; Bergen Stockstad, West Fargo, N.D., a junior in psychology (pre-medicine); and Mason Tackett, Chapel Hill, N.C., a junior in aviation safety and operations.

Mary Labuhn and Claire Erickson, Vax Venture graduate research assistants, recently had a presentation accepted for the Dakota Conference on Rural and Public Health in June 2023. They will be presenting research from UND’s Vax Venture program.

Others involved in the project are three UND communication alumni: graphic designer Abby Myers, social media manager Hayley Kuntz and videographer Caleb Rodriguez.