‘A little bit sobering’ – Grant-funded vaccination campaign progressing slowly

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Despite a lot of vaccine events and a plethora of publicity, actual shots in arms are adding up painfully slowly for the “Take A Shot on Life” COVID vaccination campaign.

“It’s been a little bit sobering, but our volunteers and the people who are working the vans they feel like if we get one shot in the arm it was worth the effort,” First Tennessee Development District’s Lottie Ryans said of the nearly 40 events conducted since mid-May.

A BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee $541,700 grant is funding the eight-county effort. East Tennessee State University (Johnson & Johnson) and Ballad Health (Pfizer) are sending teams out in several mobile vans.

Events at two area churches May 15-17 kicked off the active portion of the “Take A Shot on Life” effort. Despite much fanfare and pre-publicity they yielded fewer than 40 vaccinations — a sign of things to come.

Ryans said she had hoped vaccinations would number in the thousands by now.

Lottie Ryans

“We have done between 475 and 500 shots over the couple of months that the vans have been rolling, done about 39 events, so it’s not for lack of trying,” she said.

People continue to call and ask about the service, and employer-sponsored events have been a bright spot.

“We have had great success going to businesses when they’ve asked us to come,” Ryans said. “Part of this was all about access and access means you are where people are as well.

“One company did the shot toward the weekend so that if people didn’t feel well it wasn’t going to be an issue for them … and I think we still see some employers doing incentives.”

But one recent five-hour event at a Johnson City church yielded just three vaccinations — and Ryans said the focus is changing some.

“Part of it is how willing they are to help drive the numbers because there are for example with the Pfizer the whole cold chain process, and you don’t want to waste vaccine,” she said. “So we really need to know that people are going to show up.”

That will mean vetting churches and other static locations that are volunteering space.

“We could get to the point where we would say thanks but no thanks depending on the time of day. We have to be very realistic about that but we are seeking opportunities – when people are asking we’re still trying to say ‘is this going to work, what’s it going to take to make this a successful event.”

Some stuff thrown at the wall hasn’t stuck

Ryans said the effort’s leaders have tried to be innovative — including getting out to where large groups of people would gather, such as outdoor music events and festivals.

Overall the results have been underwhelming.

“Because we were asked we tried doing a festival or one of those, the music events in the evenings. Zero takers.”

Hopes were higher.

“Families are going to be at these events that our communities do in the evenings – for those who were thinking, ‘oh, now my child is eligible, let’s get a shot.’ But that’s not been the level of interest.”

Ryans has noticed a shift in the mindset of people who interact with vaccination teams at events.

“The counseling that happens at these events is a lot more intense than it had been. Where people maybe had been on the fence and they’re sitting there going, ‘okay, tell me more about it.’ So I think that has taken a little longer than it did … because at the beginning it was, ‘hey, the opportunity’s there, I’m there.’ And now people are still thinking through it.”

The effort is reaching a point where Ryans has to consider how many resources to marshal for a given request.

“We’ll adjust the numbers of people working as necessary just to make sure you don’t have too many people sitting there idle,” she said.

Some positives keeping spirits up

The grant runs through October, and Ryans said leaders will continue tweaking their approach in hopes of small victories — though they’d gladly take a major breakthrough.

The primary targets were communities of color and rural areas. Both lag the region’s averages for vaccination levels — and those averages are in turn significantly lower than national ones.

“We are being intentional to look at communities that might be underserved and how we might approach those communities whether it’s a language barrier or again an access issue.”

Events in Mountain City didn’t prove very successful, so the campaign is scheduling an event at a volunteer fire department.

Vaccination numbers in Johnson County are reflective of the struggle to get more uptake in rural counties — one target of the Take A Shot on Life effort.

“We will  be doing events in Johnson County at a volunteer fire department to see if having it out in the community a little further makes a difference.”

The campaign submits monthly reports, and Ryans said promoting vaccination – part of the grant’s objectives – has gone better.

“That is wildly successful,” Ryans said. “In fact there have been at least three national stories about the green van, because, ‘what are you doing in rural communities, how are you trying to make that happen.’”

Ryans said she recognizes the effort is operating in a region and state where vaccine hesitancy is higher than some other parts of the country.

The fortitude of front line vaccinators as they spend hours that could be discouraging impresses Ryans.

“I think it’s no different than the compassion you show when you sit by somebody’s bedside,” she said. “If you can make a difference for somebody you’re going to try to.”

Vaccinators from ETSU did make a difference during a May 26 event at Bell Textron, a manufacturer in Piney Flats. General Manager David Galik said Bell has a local COVID team at its Piney Flats location and contacted the campaign.

This “Take A Shot on Life” vaccination event at Bell Textron, a manufacturer in Piney Flats, Tenn., in late May was one of the COVID vaccination campaign’s most successful to date. (Courtesy Bell Textron-Piney Flats)

“We know that some people are willing to get the shot but hadn’t either figured out how to go get it or it was just inconvenient up until this time,” he said of the decision to hold an event.

Galik knew many Bell workers had probably already been vaccinated. He was pleased with the uptake.

“A good amount of people … decided to take advantage of the fact that first of all it was the one shot (Johnson & Johnson), so that was convenient, and the fact that it was just here we had a number of people take it.”

Bell representatives also spread the word to neighboring industries at Piney Flats Industrial Park — just the sort of initiative Ryans said helps make events more successful.

“We actually had some partners here in the Piney Flats Industrial Park who participated, some family members that participated, just really trying to make it an open thing for anybody who could do it,” Galik said.

He said every effort to make it easy and help people understand the vaccine’s benefits is worth it.

David Galik of Bell Textron

“It’s had an impact on the spread from my point of view,” he said. “To me there’s a convenience factor that some people just won’t do it until it’s convenient and I think the more available it is the more convenient it is the more people will get it.”

Ryans said most employers are using a carrot approach, even though some could use more of a stick.

“Even though there has been some guidance that people could require shots people are doing the ‘trust me’ kind of thing, if you’re not vaccinated wear a mask…

Ryans said employers have their reasons for taking a soft approach.

“I think we are a culture that says ‘don’t tell me what to do,’ and so I think they are being very sensitive to that in recognition it is a personal choice – but encouraging.”

The vaccination teams’ continued determination and good spirits help keep Ryans’ own attitude positive.

“It’s been fun seeing some of the things they’re doing maybe like walking the streets with signs or whatever, really trying to encourage people to come.

“Everybody’s just trying to figure out what’s going to work because everybody’s after the same goal – let’s just try to help people get the shot and come through this.”

The next non-employer event is scheduled for 1-5 p.m. July 17 at Bethel Christian Church in Jonesborough. Ballad will offer the Pfizer vaccine and electronic signups are available here:

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