• Maude Harris.
    Maude Harris.

BENTON, Mo. – Maude Harris really wants to know what people in Scott County think about the COVID-19 vaccine and other community health measures.

Harris is one of a dozen University of Missouri Extension specialists across the state who are helping with “Our Community, Our Health,” a three-year study to better understand community perspectives on COVID and related prevention measures. The study is funded by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant awarded to seven institutions nationwide.

Information collected through the program will inform community health efforts as well as planning for future pandemics, said Jane McElroy, grant co-director and a professor with the MU Department of Family and Community Medicine.

“The Centers for Disease Control is very interested in hearing what people think about both COVID vaccination as well as adult immunizations in general,” McElroy said. “This is particularly important for folks who may not speak up unless they are in a safe space to share their opinions, and Maude exemplifies being that person providing that safe space.”

Harris, an MU Extension nutrition and health specialist, has already surveyed 52 community members, including those at a Masonic Lodge and 4-H club meeting and others at food preservation and A Matter of Balance fall-prevention classes.

She is doing special outreach in the African-American community to ensure diverse community voices are included in survey results. She has asked her own family members to fill out surveys while hosting a large holiday gathering. She also will tap into her connections at a nutrition center and foster parent program and plans to do outreach at a statewide Masonic conference, a multiday training event and a military-hosted clinic for uninsured and underinsured patients.

Above all, Harris said, she focuses on being nonjudgmental, although she strongly believes in the vaccines.

“There was a gentleman who said, ‘You don't want to hear my opinion,’ and I said, ‘Actually, we want to hear it all. So yes, if you don’t mind, we’d like to hear your experience,’” Harris said. “I want them to be honest.”

Having been part of the Scott County community and working with MU Extension for about 30 years, Harris has built up trust that equips her to navigate challenging conversations.

“An elderly lady at my church would always ask me about COVID,” Harris said. “She came to me one Sunday and she said, ‘You didn’t know it, but I was asking all those questions to decide if I was going to get this vaccine or not.’ She said, ‘You never asked if I had gotten the vaccine or if I was thinking about it. You pretty much just gave me the facts and that was it.’ She said that she liked that I didn’t judge her.” The woman and her son eventually chose to get the vaccine.

“It helps to have those kinds of connections,” Harris said.

MU Extension is also helping with Our Community, Our Health outreach in McDonald, Franklin, Boone, Cooper, Cass, Randolph, Shelby, Greene, Osage, Knox and Jackson counties, as well as through food systems and Recovery Friendly Workplace connections.

More information about Our Community, Our Health.