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In February, Get Vaccinated Chattanooga held its first free vaccine clinic, and 880 people came.

At two more clinics in March, more than 3,100 people were vaccinated.

Then, a fourth clinic in April ... and 53 people came.

A fifth clinic followed. Sixth, seventh, eighth ... Get Vaccinated Chattanooga's hosted at least 17 clinics, from Sale Creek to Brainerd, vaccinating more than 4,400 people.

Most of those vaccines were administered in February and March. Remember those days? The long lines? Arms were everywhere.

Now?

Get Vaccinated Chattanooga offered shots at a recent Nightfall concert.

Three people were vaccinated.

Health leaders talk about the strategy shifting. Treating the vaccine like a political candidate. Come, meet it. Let's shake hands. Earn your trust.

"Every vaccine matters," said Dr. Matt Kodsi, vice president of medical affairs at CHI Memorial.

At the Howard High clinic, where 53 people were vaccinated, Kodsi struck up a conversation with a food truck owner. No, the man said, he didn't want the vaccine.

Kodsi listened, disarmingly. Nodded. Offered medical advice. Kindly, but factually.

"Fifteen minutes with him," Kodsi said. "He said: 'You know, I'm getting vaccinated.'"

And 52 became 53.

Last month, Kodsi was at a clinic at Signal Centers. Wearing his Hamilton "I'm Not Throwing Away My Shot!" T-shirt, Kodsi was affable, inviting, warm. His colleague, Dr. Patrick Ellis, director of pharmacy for CHI Memorial, was equally so.

"It's going to take a lot of honest conversations," Ellis said. "It's going to take time."

That day, they vaccinated 13 people.

Van the Man was one of them.

Van Tumlin — or Van the Man, as he's known at Chattanooga State Community College, where he's worked for years — heard about the clinic on Power 94.

"It's time," he said. "I wanted to get myself protected for the kids' sake and the college ... I balled up my fist. Let's do this."

After his first dose, Tumlin, a veteran who turns 71 this month, became emotional.

The relief. The freedom.

"I got tears in my eyes," he said.

It's tempting to get discouraged in this go-slow approach. Yet, there's a silver lining.

Fifteen minutes in the food truck? Thirty minutes with a neighbor?

This go-slow approach builds trust and community.

In the race to vaccinate Chattanooga, something else is happening.

"The journey is just as important as the destination," said Dwayne Marshall, vice president of community investment for the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.

Marshall and the foundation helped assemble Get Vaccinated Chattanooga.

VACCINATION EVENT

What: Get Vaccinated Chattanooga Neighborhood Block Party
Where: East Lake Park, 3000 East 34th St., Chattanooga, TN
When: July 10, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

The program could have been top-heavy. Do this, do that.

Instead, they put some 30 trusted community and faith leaders out front, prioritizing their leadership.

In doing so, they built a collaboration between private, public and nonprofit entities.

A round table.

A journey equal to the destination.

"The table we build is just as important," Marshall said. "That will stand the test of time on the other side of COVID."

Get Vaccinated Chattanooga created a fellowship of leaders working within a durable and effective network big enough for all zip codes. Post-COVID, this infrastructure will still exist. Instead of viruses, they can move — ahem — the needle on health care. Or jobs. Or public safety.

Get Vaccinated Chattanooga represents the future of community work.

While there is no singular leader, there is one man who must be named.

"Chris Ramsey," Marshall said. "He wanted everybody in Chattanooga to have a fair shot. The soil he tilled was health."

Ramsey, a former health care executive, worked in so many circles, beloved by so many.

"Chris was a giant," Katherlyn Geter said. "A gentle giant."

Geter, a Hamilton County District 5 commissioner, said two things were guaranteed when Ramsey, her long-time friend, walked into a meeting.

Laughter.

And no-nonsense work.

"We can serve and smile and bring love," Geter said. "Chris always said: 'I'm tired of coming to meetings to meet. What are we going to do?'"

In January, Ramsey died of complications from the very virus he sought to prevent. He was 54, a father and a husband. The loss of him still reverberates through this city.

"Look at the way Chris lived and the way he served," Geter said. "Remember how he treated people."

This July 4, let us remember the giant Chris Ramsey.

And the enduring work of Get Vaccinated Chattanooga.

And the freedom that comes from relationships we can trust.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfree press.com.

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