Serving the community as a doctor runs in Anita Chopra’s family.
Chopra, MD, is a primary care physician at UW Medicine Primary Care at Shoreline. Her sister is an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist in Michigan, and their grandfather was a doctor in India — the only one within a 50-mile radius.
Although Chopra never met him, she heard stories of him from her grandmother — like the one about how, during a cholera epidemic, he broke police-enforced curfews to save lives.
“He would make a rehydration solution at home, which my grandma would help prepare. He would take that out at night so police didn’t know and go to people’s homes and save their lives using IV drips,” Chopra says.
She had no way of knowing how, in early 2020, her own experiences were about to reflect her grandfather’s.
Serving underserved communities during the pandemic
With stories of her grandfather and his work “ingrained” in her, as she says, Chopra faced the start of the COVID-19 pandemic head-on.
Her first goal was to provide education about safety practices, such as handwashing and masking, and correct the rampant misinformation that was circulating online.
She organized virtual and physically distanced in-person town halls and information sessions — as well as virtual and outdoor health fairs — in underrepresented communities, including local Indian American communities. Some of these sessions were held in multiple languages to help make the information accessible to people who don’t speak English. (Chopra also speaks Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.)
Chopra also helped install handwashing stations throughout the city to encourage hand hygiene and provide access to it for people who are houseless — a project led by her daughter Mehr.
“COVID-19 has unearthed and exposed many cultural, language, educational, technological and financial disparities. What we used to read in scientific literature we saw in reality. The biggest barrier was the lack of trust in the scientific community,” she explains.
The key to working through barriers and mistrust, Chopra says, was meeting people where they were at through grassroots outreach.
This involved dispelling myths, providing correct information in a nonjudgmental way, bringing in experts from diverse backgrounds and being persistent, Chopra says.
She also partnered with Public Health — Seattle & King County, local school districts, places of worship, community centers, fire departments, small businesses and, of course, UW Medicine, to address misinformation.
Vaccine advocacy and ongoing community work
These disparities and mistrust came around again as the COVID-19 vaccines became available. Plus, Chopra noticed a problem: Local people in South Asian and other underrepresented communities weren’t getting vaccinated.
Her solution? Making lots and lots of phone calls.
During her outreach work, Chopra had gathered the names of people who either wanted to get vaccinated but couldn’t easily get access or who were still uncertain and needed a gentle push. She and Mehr provided that push by making vaccination appointments for thousands of people.
This took a lot of time and coordination. She had to keep track of when appointments were available and when pop-up clinics had extra supply.
“We were making appointments during any free moment we had. We would help make appointments for people who are older or don’t have access to technology. The patient service representatives at the clinic where I work helped call them and said Dr. Chopra gave them their name,” she says.
Chopra spoke with hesitant people about her personal experience, how she felt under the weather for a couple days after her vaccines but then recovered. She and Mehr also learned the importance of educating younger people, so they could then go back and educate their older family members, many of whom don’t speak English.
All their work paid off.
“We initially saw lots of vaccine hesitancy, especially among the South Asian community. Now if you look at the numbers, 80% of our population is vaccinated,” she says.
Some of the work was similar to what she’d been doing before vaccines were available: Town halls (including a Punjabi town hall with UW Medicine), information sessions, plus getting vaccine handouts translated in different languages.
She also helped organize and participated in several mass vaccination events, including one at Sammamish High School where 1,800 vaccines were given; at a Sikh community center in Renton where 500 vaccines were given; and at the clinic where Chopra works, where hundreds of teachers coming from as far as Gig Harbor got vaccinated.
Organizing these events wasn’t easy and took a lot of coordinating — and understanding which populations needed the most outreach.
“I find things out because I’m constantly in touch. Some old folks weren’t going anywhere, so I worked for three months with Public Health — Seattle & King County to get the vaccine to the Sikh community center, and we were able to do it,” Chopra explains.
Her efforts are ongoing. Every week since February 2020, Mehr has been holding a mental health online group for local teens. Chopra has helped organize a similar group for all ages that meets every other week.
Vaccine education continues through Worth A Shot, an organization Mehr founded.
Throughout it all, familial inspiration has helped Chopra keep going. Not just inspiration from her grandfather, but from Mehr.
“I drew strength from Mehr’s work. When the pandemic started, she immediately jumped to action and asked what we needed to do. I saw her work was effective. She didn’t let the pandemic bog her down,” Chopra says.
Chopra’s husband, Prabhdeep, and younger daughter, Simar, have also been a key part of her inspiration and support system, as have her UW Medicine colleagues. She is grateful for the leadership shown by Paul Ramsey, MD, CEO, through the pandemic and the focus UW Medicine has put on addressing healthcare disparities and distributing COVID-19 vaccines equitably.
“The love for my work and community work has kept me going. Instead of feeling stressed I felt that I needed to step up. I consider UW as my family and my strength,” she says.