COVID-19 vaccination sites look much different today compared to several months ago, when eager drivers would often sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get their long-awaited first vaccine dose.
On the last Saturday in April, cars sporadically pulled up to a drive-thru vaccination event in The Howard School parking lot. CHI Memorial's medical staff was prepared to administer 1,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine to anyone 18 and older, including walk-ups, free of charge. Only 53 people were vaccinated that day.
Perhaps the poor weather conditions kept more people at home, but the scene illustrated a concerning trend across the Chattanooga region and the nation — demand for COVID-19 vaccines has plummeted, and now health officials and advocates are facing the monumental challenge of trying to convince roughly two-thirds of the county that getting vaccinated is not only important for their health, but the health of the entire community.
To try and meet that need, a coalition of local community, faith and health leaders, assembled by the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, has launched a vaccine communication and education campaign called "Get Vaccinated Chattanooga."
The campaign features culturally relatable and understandable educational materials, social media ads, billboards and prominent community members who have already been vaccinated sharing their stories. Churches, schools, workforce organizations and grassroots community groups are just some of the partners helping to disseminate the information to the vulnerable populations of focus: African Americans, Latinos, homeless, children, people with disabilities, older adults and homeless people.
"It's important to recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach is not going to be effective in beating this virus, and although we are under all the same umbrella of the Get Vaccinated Chattanooga campaign, we have unique strategies to reach our populations of focus due to the unique challenges and barriers each community faces," said Paulo Hutson Solorzano, an outreach consultant for Cempa Community Care who leads the Latino working group for the coalition.
The effort is funded by a $401,664 grant from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation, as well as an additional $20,000 from the Community Foundation and $10,000 from the Benwood Foundation.
Many of the focus populations were chosen because those groups are not only more susceptible to COVID-19 illness and death but because they face additional barriers to accessing health care. For example, Black residents make up 19% of Hamilton County's population but account for 27% of the county's COVID-19 deaths, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department.
"These particular groups were disproportionately affected because of the long-existing health disparities that exist, so I'm hoping that through this work the community is able to see how we can come together to uplift our most vulnerable communities," Solorzano said.
Although children in general are not as severely impacted by COVID-19, in order to control the pandemic children must be a part of the strategy, Solorzano said. Nineteen percent of Hamilton County's confirmed coronavirus cases have been in those age 20 and under, and the group is preparing pediatric-specific materials to be distributed once COVID-19 vaccines are authorized for younger age groups.
A common thread across the campaign is the importance of building trust through relationships and meeting people where they are to overcome vaccine hesitancy.
"In the African American communities and in our families, mistrust is high," said Hamilton County Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, who is featured in one of the promotional ads. "We have a lot of hesitation, just because of the history and the mistrust that exists within the health care system itself, and so education is key within the Black community."
Kristi Wick, a gerontology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's School of Nursing and leader of the older adult working group, said the coalition has been partnering with ArtsBuild to incorporate various forms of art into its vaccination events and increase vaccine acceptance.
"When you have music and different things to focus on other than fear, it brings the attention to all the good things that are the vaccine. And, again, it just helps build that trust and that personal relationship," Wick said.
Many of the coalition members said that honoring local health advocate Chris Ramsey, who died due to COVID-19 in January, is a driving force behind the campaign.
"If we're not going to step up to the plate and get this work done, then who else is going to do it?" African American working group leader LaDarius Price said, quoting one of Ramsey's well-known mantras. "I can't think of a better group of individuals collectively coming together to get this work done. It's about our community, it's about making sure that our community is as healthy as possible, but it's also about people fighting for the fact that it needs to be equitable on every front."
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.
Get Vaccinated Chattanooga billboardView
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