Covid-19 devastated this small city. Volunteers are going door-to-door to ensure people get vaccinated
The last 12 months have been tolling for Linda Harris, who lives in a small Southwest Georgia city hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m tired of losing grandparents, grandmamas, granddaddys and some of our small children, too.”
Back-to-back funerals and a marathon proved to be deadly, as the virus quickly spread throughout Albany, Georgia. The predominantly Black city quickly became a hot spot early in the pandemic.
As demand for the coronavirus vaccine continues to outweigh supply, the city has adopted a new approach to get the most vulnerable vaccinated.
Harris, a city recreation supervisor and lifelong resident, canvasses poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods to create awareness of local vaccine resources.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Harris along with a few other volunteers trek around for miles throughout South Albany knocking on hundreds of doors passing out flyers informing residents of a nearby weekend vaccination pop-up site.
Along the way, familiar faces light up at the sight of Harris crisscrossing the neighborhood. “There’s always someone trying to help somebody, showing the positive way of going by something,” says Jeremiah Heart, a neighbor of Harris’.
He is just a year shy of turning 65, leaving him out of the vaccine eligibility for now. He is nonetheless certain of wanting the vaccine. “I’ve never been hesitant at all about it, always wanting something to keep me going,” Heart says.
However, those convictions are not shared by all in the community.
“My daughter don’t want me to take it, and I’m a little scared, but I’m going to see. I don’t want it to make me sick,” said Willie Heath after Harris dropped off a flyer at his door.
Harris remains undeterred, relying on her faith, warmth, and trustworthiness to get her neighbors vaccinated.
“We’re being hit the hardest with this, and we’re trying to talk to them [at risk communities] so they can come out and get the vaccine. So we can at least prevent some of them from dying. It’s a choice, if they choose to take the vaccine or not. But we just doing our job encouraging them and talking to them. It’s a choice.”
A grassroots effort to build trust
Harris is at the helm leading efforts on the ground, but it is Dr. Derek Heard leading the charge a few miles down at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. The grassroots campaign is a joint effort between Phoebe Putney Health Systems, the only hospital system in southwest Georgia, and the City of Albany.
Heard, also an Albany native, started seeing the racial disparities in the vaccination numbers. Phoebe Putney Health Systems data show that White people are being vaccinated at more than twice the rate of Black residents.
“We knew that there were multiple reasons for that disparity, whether it was social determinants of health, having access to our vaccination center, Heard said.
He also knew that him and colleagues had to do something to fix the mistrust some people in the African American community had toward the medical establishment.
A few days later, the walkup pop-up site opened to some anticipation with only a dozen appointments made beforehand. The biggest challenge was not in getting the word out but rather in dispelling suspicions in the African American community.
“It’s just fear, the fear of [the] unknown, just not knowing and then afraid to ask,” said Alberta Charlot, a Licensed Practical Nurse at Phoebe Putney.
Charlot had been on site as the elderly and their caregivers slowly trickled in. She had gotten her first shot just a few days prior after deciding it was the best thing to do for herself and her family.
An elderly woman stopped by with her grandson after driving by and seeing the pop-up vaccination site. She called her three sisters to come and get the shot. All three of them declined including one on dialysis.
The final tally for the day was less than 50 vaccines in arms.
“This work is not easy. We’re in a mostly African American community that has some very valid reasons for maybe not trusting healthcare, not trusting science. So, it’s days like this that hopefully build just a little bit of trust,” Scott Steiner, President and CEO at Phoebe Putney Health System told CNN.
“People see maybe their neighbor getting it somebody that they respect, and it makes them feel more comfortable.”