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Photo contributed by Shaw Industries / Public health workers administer COVID-19 vaccines to Whitfield County workers in the carpet industry.

When government, the private sector and nonprofits join forces, good things are bound to happen.

That was the message from Santiago Marquez, CEO of Georgia's Latin American Association, when describing how over 5,000 COVID-19 vaccines were given to workers of three major carpet manufacturers in Whitfield County over the past several weeks.

In partnership with the city of Dalton and the Whitfield County Public Health Department, Shaw Industries, Mohawk Industries and Engineered Floors recently collaborated at their Dalton-area plants to administer COVID-19 vaccines, 80% of which went to Latinos.

"The fact that you have three competitors that all said, 'This is for the betterment of our workforce. Let's come together and do this as a collaborative effort,'" Marquez said. "You have all three working together and to me, that's the key to success."

The Latin American Association is a nonprofit organization with headquarters in DeKalb County and a satellite location in Dalton. The group has grown roots in Whitfield County for over three years and was recently approached by Dalton City Councilwoman Annalee Harlan about a way to easily vaccinate a vital group of the county's workforce that oftentimes gets overlooked.

Mohawk Industries actually helped Marquez and his organization get footing in Dalton, so when the opportunity came to help get employees vaccinated, the nonprofit jumped at the chance. Everyone involved had to pass through several logistical hoops to get their hands on vaccine doses, but once they did, the group was able to administer over 5,000.

Mike Fromm, chief human resources officer for Shaw Industries, said in a statement the collaboration was important.

"We compete with our competitors in the marketplace," Fromm said. "We don't compete with them in the community we serve."

Marquez was very encouraged by the high turnout.

"Eighty percent, I believe, were Hispanic," Marquez said. "The beauty of the project is you're vaccinating on-site. You're tackling the third shift community, those folks that might be working the night shift. It would be very difficult for them to go get vaccinated because as they're getting off work, they're probably going home to see their kids go to school, and they're going to bed."

Marquez said the Hispanic community can be difficult to reach when it comes to public health. The language barrier is a major obstacle, as was Georgia's confusing and erratic rollout of the vaccine. As things were changing on a daily basis, people like those in the Hispanic community get left behind.

"Just getting information to the community was tough," Marquez said. "Trying to explain what the vaccine process was like, who was eligible, then trying to direct them to a website, teaching them how to register, that whole thing was pretty cumbersome at first."

Georgia is still near the bottom of the list of states for vaccines administered per capita. As of Thursday, 14% of Georgians were fully vaccinated, the lowest percentage in the United States, slightly behind Alabama's 15%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state average for Georgia is about 43,000 doses per 100,000 people. Whitfield County is behind the state average at 33,188 doses per 100,000.

Of the nearly 3 million people in Georgia with at least one vaccine shot, 3.6% are Hispanic. Hispanics make up about 10% of the state's population.

That's where hesitancy comes in.

"The issue now is vaccine hesitancy, in the sense of, 'Is it still accessible for me?'" Marquez said. "Is it somewhere they trust, do they speak the language, are they gonna ask me for documents, all of that comes into play."

The unique opportunity for these carpet companies offering the vaccines on site in an environment where employees are comfortable makes a huge difference, Marquez said.

"Even folks who are more integrated into the general community, there's hesitancy," he said. "Once you start to see your peers getting vaccinated, in some cases it might put them at ease."

Marquez hopes this initiative can expand to poultry processing plants and other workforce areas where Hispanics and other immigrant workers are being overlooked in the midst of an ongoing, if dwindling, pandemic.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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