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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

“North, South, East and West”: Reaching Every Area, And Demographic, In The Vaccine Rollout

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June Leffler/ WVPB
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WVPB
The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department hosted a COVID-19 vaccine in Rand, WV, just 8 miles Southeast of Charleston in February.

As more people in West Virginia get their shot, the state is diversifying how it gets COVID-19 vaccines out to people. With a goal to get shots in everyone’s arm, the state and local health departments are figuring out how to reach everyone, no matter their location or demographics.

One way to reach certain folks is through smaller clinics outside of city centers. And these small community clinics are relying on small community outreach.

If you live in Kanawha County, and are lucky enough to get scheduled for your vaccine shot, you’ll probably end up driving downtown to the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center. Most weekends, it’s open for a mass vaccination clinic.

But Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Director Dr. Sherri Young said smaller clinics are just as essential. That way, her department can hit every part of the county, not just downtown Charleston.

“I like to go north, south, east and west, and just kind of make our rotation throughout the county,” Young said. “And go the furthest away from the city of Charleston, for the fact that those are the people that may have the hardest time getting there.”

With that idea in mind, the local health department hosted one of these small clinics Wednesday in Rand, about 20 minutes east of Charleston. It was held at the local community center, in a residential neighborhood with playgrounds nearby.

A community clinic like this can be ten times smaller, giving out a few hundred doses versus a few thousand. That day, the health department gave out just shy of 300 doses.

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June Leffler/ WVPB
Fielding Moss, 49, and Marilyn Tompa, 67, received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose at a clinic in Rand, WV.

The health department pulled names from the state’s central pre-registration list and called folks based on their age and proximity to the clinic. But the department went a step further, and also reached out to community leaders to get the word out in less formal ways.

“Reaching out to the mayors, to the volunteer fire departments, the people who know that know somebody who needs to get vaccinated,” Young said.

That’s how 63-year-old Rick Hutchinson found out. His sister got a call from the mayor of their small town, Belle. And she called him.

“I was on my way to Teays Valley to do some work. And I turned around and thought this would be a good opportunity. If I didn't get it today, it might be May or June before my age group gets it,” Hutchinson said.

While the health department is targeting a certain age group at the clinic, they also don’t want to turn anyone away. Hutchinson was just shy of the state recommended age requirement of 65-years-old. But he was at the right place at the right time, and the health department seated him.

The health department chose Rand because it’s aways from the city center, but it also has a target demographic. Almost a third of Rand’s population is African American. That’s important because only 11% of African Americans in West Virginia have been vaccinated, compared to 20% of whites, based on most recent data from the state Department of Health and Human. -- That disparity is another reason the department chose Rand for the clinic.

It would appear that the health department still has more work to do in their efforts to close this disparity. Looking around the classroom turned vaccination site, the demographics didn’t reflect what census data for the area shows.

Ronald Allen Jr., who is Black, was there. He's 48 and lives in Saint Albans. He’s not old by any stretch, but he has congestive heart issues that put him at serious risk if he were to catch Covid-19. Along with seniors and frontline workers, he believes people with underlying conditions, like himself, should have been among the first to get the vaccine.

“Not trying to be, you know,selfish, but this is a very serious situation that the world is dealing with right now,” Allen said.

He knows the stakes. His sister died last year due to similar underlying conditions.

He’s not sure if she had COVID-19, but her last days were certainly impacted by the pandemic.

“She was by herself and nobody could go see her. And it was really tough,” he said.

Allen found out about the clinic from his church leader. Bishop Robert Haley III runs a predominantly Black church on Charleston's West Side called A More Excellent Way Life Center Church. It’s a place where Allen feels safe and valued and seen, and he trusts Bishop Haley.

Haley says the Black community has a long standing and legitimate mistrust of health providers. Medicine, like most institutions, has historically failed black patients. But Haley did not hesitate to tell Allen his other church members to sign up and get the vaccine.

“It's so important that our community get vaccinated because we are the group that this virus is attacking more than any other,” Haley said.

Helping church members find resources, and caring about their health is what Haley does everyday. His church gives out food boxes, and even flu shots. And when he got the vaccine, he took a video and posted it on Facebook, so others would feel safe getting the life-saving precaution.

As the vaccine roll out broadens, it’s clear local health departments and community partners will have to meet patients where they’re at: physically and emotionally.

Later this month WVPB’s show Us and Them will feature a full report on racial health disparities in West Virginia. It premieres on February 25th at 8 pm.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.


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