Now that all Virginians age 16 and up are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, local health officials and community leaders are trying to overcome the barriers that may be preventing people from getting vaccinated. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
[The Virginia Department of Health sponsors programs on WMRA.]
The Central Shenandoah Health District encompasses the counties of Augusta, Bath, Highland, Rockbridge and Rockingham, and the cities within them. As of the end of April, 49.5% of people 18 and older in this area have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
LAURA LEE WIGHT: And of course, you know our target is 75% of the population, so we still have a ways to go. We are making some progress.
Laura Lee Wight is the district's public information officer and population health community coordinator.
WIGHT: Before, we had a lot of demand and not enough supply. Now, we have the supply, and our demand, we've been able to meet a lot of the demand … now we do need to make sure we are, one, providing information and education to help people feel confident in getting the vaccine who were kind of vaccine-hesitant, or deliberating on which vaccine they wanted. And two, we need to make sure we're addressing the barriers that individual communities have experienced that might keep them from getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
Those barriers include troubles with transportation, work and childcare schedules, internet access, and computer literacy. One of the ways the health district is trying to break those down is by offering walk-up appointments at their vaccination clinics, so that people don't have to pre-register online.
WIGHT: … to just provide communities with more flexibility, and to make sure that they don't have to depend on a computer or internet to be able to access an appointment.
Another strategy has been hosting virtual town halls with local leaders from Harrisonburg, Staunton, and Lexington to educate the public about the vaccine. Here's Dr. Laura Kornegay, health director of the district, answering questions in a town hall on April 21st.
LAURA KORNEGAY: … We have a history with these kinds of viruses, and in fact vaccine trials had been in effect with these other viruses in the past, and that kind of gave us a leg up for this current vaccine. The other thing that brought them to market so quickly was that the vaccines were being studied and produced at the same time.
The health district has also built partnerships with nonprofits and community leaders to disseminate information and build confidence in the vaccine. One such partner is the Welcoming Harrisonburg Council, which is chaired by Nelly Moreno Shenk of Skyline Literacy. She said the council includes representatives from the Hispanic, Congolese, Sudanese, Iraqi, and Kurdish communities.
NELLY MORENO SHENK: It's a very diverse group, you know? That is helping just to spread the word out.
In addition to transportation and scheduling difficulties, Moreno Shenk often talks with those in the immigrant community who have cultural or religious reasons for not wanting to be vaccinated.
MORENO SHENK: So they think that this is something from the devil. It's just amazing to hear that a few people, you know, think about that in that way. Other things are also that this has not been, that the vaccine came out without the approval of the FDA, it was too quick. … However, there have been some efforts to educate the community. Futuro Latino for example in partnership with many other organizations is doing a workshop online, on Facebook, bringing professionals that they can demystify that information, the wrong information that people have.
The United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham has been another partner in this grassroots education campaign.
LAURA TONI-HOLSINGER: There's still people that are hesitant to get the vaccine and there's a lot of reasons for that, and certainly ones that we respect, but we want to make sure that people are making decisions based on good information.
Laura Toni-Holsinger is their executive director. Earlier in the vaccine rollout, she and her staff worked to identify individuals whose job put them at higher risk for contracting COVID, and pass their names along to the Department of Health.
TONI-HOLSINGER: Childcare staff in particular, they unfortunately were not, at least in my opinion, as far to the front of the line as they should have been, and many of them have been open since last April or May, and been in direct contact with kids and parents even if they've had safety measures.
Upcoming vaccination clinics in the district will be held at:
- the Rockingham County Fairgrounds, this Wednesday (May 5) from 2 to 6 p.m.,
- the JMU Convocation Center on Monday the 10th, from 2 to 6 p.m.,
- the Rockingham County Fairgrounds on Wednesday the 12th, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.,
- The College Square Shopping Center in Lexington on Thursday the 13th, from 2 to 6 p.m., and
- the Harrisonburg Community Activities Center on Friday the 14th, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
They are all taking walk-ins.