‘Take a Shot on Life’ effort also ready to begin rural push

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Leaders of a regional vaccination effort fueled by a half-million dollar grant are reassessing their strategy and accentuating the positives after a disappointing debut weekend that saw just three dozen people vaccinated.

“We are looking at how we go to festivals and the music events and those kinds of things where there’ll be a lot of people and just make it as easy as possible,” said Lottie Ryans, director of workforce and literacy initiatives for the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD).

“If it’s just right there and they don’t have to go anywhere I think we will see more people taking the shot and I think that’s a shift we’re going to be making in our strategy.”

FTDD is coordinating the effort in partnership with vaccination teams from Ballad Health and ETSU Health.

The first two vaccination clinics for the “Take A Shot on Life” campaign were well-publicized. They were well-staffed by volunteer vaccinators and helpers from two area churches.

They just weren’t very successful if the measure is getting lots of shots into arms.

Only 36 people were vaccinated total at the three-day events at Johnson City’s Friendship Baptist Church and Greater Life Church in Kingsport.

“It is hard,” Ryans said. “Maybe harder than we thought, and I think with mandates being lifted and different guidance from the CDC it’s very fluid, but we still have people calling to ask about bringing vans to their businesses or to their churches, which we will continue to do.”

But she said those offerings won’t likely be as large scale as last weekend’s. A large team from ETSU Health offered Johnson & Johnson vaccines at Greater Life, while a Ballad team was administering first doses of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine at Friendship.

She said those teams kept a positive outlook over seven-hour shifts Saturday and four-hour ones both Sunday and Monday.

“In their mind if we have one person who gets vaccinated it’s worth the time because that one person can impact so many others,” Ryans said.

She’s hoping to see that kind of influence spread more easily at mass gatherings. People may begin seeing the bright green vans around the region as they attend concerts, festivals and other public events.

Meeting the rural mandate

FTDD’s grant from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee calls on it to prioritize communities of color and rural areas. Both were expected to have barriers to vaccination.

Ryans said Take a Shot on Life will follow the convenience is king strategy as it tries to reach rural areas in its eight county region. Vaccination rates in Washington and Sullivan counties, home to the region’s largest cities, are significantly higher than those in the five more rural counties in News Channel 11’s viewing area — Carter, Greene, Hawkins, Johnson and Unicoi.

First-dose vaccination rates are lower in Northeast Tennessee’s rural counties — Carter, Greene, Hawkins, Johnson and Unicoi — than in Washington and Sullivan counties. They’re far lower than the national average.

“As we move out into those spaces then we are making that access for them and making it so you don’t have to think about planning for it, driving your car somewhere – I’m already there, let’s just take advantage of the vaccine opportunity being where I am.”

One idea the group is pursuing would center around using space at local volunteer fire departments, which often have prominent community members involved with them.

“While it may not seem like a great distance, for some people just having to drive into town from a rural area is a big deal and is an inconvenience, so we just want to make it more convenient for them,” she said.

Convenience clearly isn’t the only thing Ryans and her team are battling. Polls show vaccine hesitancy is higher in rural and politically conservative areas, and both those descriptions fit the region.

Ryans said volunteer vaccinators are always eager to answer skeptics’ questions.

“People who have been doing this for awhile … can answer all those questions for people who’ve just been hearing things on social media that confuse them. They can give them the facts from a clinical perspective and they’re very willing to spend the time talking to people to do that at the events.”

Ryans said the effort continues to offer services to businesses, churches and other organizations through its two mobile vans. Information is at takeashotonlife.com.