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Vaccinating Vulnerable Communities: Making sure we can all be immunized

March 9, 2021
Published in: COVID-19

COVID-19 vaccination being administered at mobile clinic

Since January, Augusta Health has worked in partnership with the Central Shenandoah Health District (CSHD) to vaccinate community members. It’s been a massive effort, and one that requires precise and considerable planning, resulting in more than 30,000 seniors and essential workers having received at least one dose of vaccine by the end of the first week of March.

While most in the community are able to attend the Community Clinics on the Augusta Health campus, a percentage of the community is not. Augusta Health and CSHD also work together to vaccinate the most vulnerable area residents.

“We know that health disparities exist when looking at COVID as a disease and vaccines as a treatment for that disease,” says Clint Merritt, MD, Chief Clinical Officer for Population Health at Augusta Health. “In our vaccine efforts, we are trying to reduce these disparities and remove barriers to care. So when we are planning our vaccination efforts—whether we are talking about event locations or persons we are helping —we are focusing on serving those who can’t easily attend a large vaccine clinic or who have other barriers to getting healthcare, such as lacking access to the internet for the use of a scheduling system.”

Covid-related disparities exist for many groups in our community. Minority populations have been impacted severely by COVID; the Black and Hispanic communities have had higher rates of hospitalization from Covid-19. Persons with mobility challenges have trouble getting to vaccine sites. The elderly have born the highest burden of Covid-related deaths. And community members who lack routine medical care or who have chronic health problems are at higher risk for severe illness, shares Dr. Merritt.

Each week, Augusta Health stages several off-site clinics to meet the vaccination needs of diverse groups in our community. “This work has been a wonderful story of teamwork and collaboration,” adds Dr. Merritt. “We’ve built relationships with many agencies and community leaders, such as the Valley Program for Aging Services, the Department of Social Services, the local housing authorities, local mental health agencies and others. We work together to offer education about Covid vaccines for many groups and then we set up clinics in trusted and easily accessible locations”

The scope of the vaccination clinics is still seniors age 65 and above who live in Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro—but these clinics are small and more focused. Dr. Merritt says the acceptance rate for vaccines at these community events has been quite high.

“With communication and a collaborative effort, we’ve had a great response,” says Dr. Merritt. “At one senior apartment complex, we vaccinated 84 people, which was more than 90% of residents accepting a vaccine. That’s amazing, and it was possible because case managers, residential managers and volunteers went door-to-door to educate and reduce barriers. The process was very smooth.”

Lydia Campbell, Community-based Supervisor at Valley Community Services Board and chair of the Valley Homeless Connection, worked with Augusta Health and CSHD on vaccination efforts for the homeless and non-homeless vulnerable community members who met criteria for vaccination. Her staff educated community members, helped to enroll them, and even provided transportation to clinics.

“The coordination was seamless,” says Campbell. “It was a beautiful thing. Everything about the pandemic this past year has highlighted how important the partnerships we’ve all made over the year are, and they have been strengthened. Our partnership with Augusta Health is exponentially stronger, and it’s just wonderful to know they care as much about our folks as we do.”

Laura Lee Wight, Population Health Community Coordinator at CSHD, also appreciates the collaborative vaccination efforts to reach all in the community. “When the effort is as large and complex as this vaccination effort is, we need community partners to help us increase our capacity to vaccinate and educate the community. We’re grateful for healthcare partners like Augusta Health who not only assist us, but help innovate solutions for overcoming barriers in the process. We have a huge list of eligible people in the CSHD to vaccinate, and with Augusta Health, we can leverage each other’s contacts and efforts to have a wider impact.”

Plans in the process include vaccination clinics in the remote communities in Augusta County, and soon, adding adults with health conditions. The goal, says Dr. Merritt, is to reach herd immunity as soon as possible.

“We have a multi-faceted approach, and it’s been very cool to watch it come together,” he adds. “We have the large, mass clinics on the hospital campus that are beautifully put together. Then, for community members with higher Covid risks and facing barriers, we put together smaller, more customized clinics that meet their needs. It looks different each time. That’s what the community needs, though. We won’t get to herd immunity without multiple approaches. So we’ll do what it takes to get there.”