Area groups work to help vulnerable populations get vaccinated

The Harrisonburg office of Church World Service, which helps with refugee resettlement, is among several groups helping remove barriers so more people can be vaccinated.

By Bridget Manley, publisher

While COVID-19 vaccinations have become widely available, several Harrisonburg organizations have stepped up efforts to help people in vulnerable communities — including immigrants and refugees, as well as those experiencing homelessness — overcome hurdles to get vaccinated. 

The Central Shenandoah Health District reports that as of June 1st, they have scheduled 15 clinics onsite at poultry plant facilities, administering more than 2,770 COVID-19 vaccine doses.

Susannah Lepley, the Virginia director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Church World Service, saidmany people are hesitant to get the vaccine, simply because they cannot take a day off if it makes them sick. 

“They work in poultry plants and other kinds of essential manufacturing — in healthcare, in industries that have had to keep going,” Lepley said. “They haven’t had the opportunity to get the vaccine whenever, or to stay at home and quarantine.”

Some people, she said, are afraid they can’t miss work if their family depends on their income. 

People in those populations have been disproportionally impacted by COVID-19 cases because many are essential employees who worked throughout the pandemic, sometimes in close quarters with others.

Lepley said her organization is working with the Virginia Department of Health and Emergency Management to create small mobile clinics that can go into neighborhoods and vaccinate people where they live and work.

“Now we are sort of shifting to ‘how do we make it easier to get the vaccine’ and catch the population who…may be stay-at-home moms (who) haven’t had the opportunity to go out, or older folks who can’t go out,” Lepley said. 

Making the vaccine “mobile” is an important step to getting everyone in Virginia vaccinated, according to those who work with vulnerable communities. 

Other organizations are taking a grassroots approach to getting vulnerable populations vaccinated. 

Alicia Corral-Clark, board member of NewBridges, gets vaccinated. (photo courtesy of Alicia Corral-Clark)

Alicia Corral-Clark, a board member at the NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center in Harrisonburg, has been spending her free time working by phone, translating and helping families sign up for the shots.

For immigrants, refugees, people experiencing homelessness and people with socioeconomic challenges, navigating online portals and showing up to clinics can all be barriers. Corral-Clark aims to help eliminate some of those stressors. 

“I’ve contacted them, or they’ve contacted me with information. I’ve also contacted some of the local employers to get my information out there, and I register them myself,” Corral-Clark said. “I get all their information while I’m talking to them on the phone, so that they don’t have to do anything. I send them a picture of the confirmation information. But it’s just word of mouth, me calling them.”

NewBridges is a non-profit organization that helps immigrants and refugees with legal and translation services. It also helps clients with access to health care.

Alicia Horst, director of NewBridges, said one such way is creating an information hub where people can accessinformation from various sources about how to the get the vaccine. 

“Our primary focus has been to try and communicate as much information as possible through social mediabecause since the beginning of the pandemic, that is one way that people have been trying to access information of various types, including … the vaccine,” Horst said. 

Meanwhile, Virginia designated homeless shelters and those experiencing homelessness in the second category of the vaccine rollout earlier this year, which was welcome news to those who work with the homeless population. 

Sam Nickels, executive director of Our Community Place, said early vaccinations for staff and people who rely on the organization’s services was important, so they participated in mass vaccination clinics at Open Doors, which operates a shelter at the old Red Front building. 

For those who missed the mass vaccination events, staff schedule appointments and arrange for rides to clinics at the Rockingham County fairgrounds. 

Sam Nickels, executive director of Our Community Place (photo courtesy of OCP)

“We try to identify folks who have not been vaccinated yet, and then channel them into the current places where they can easily go,” Nickels said. 

At the start of the pandemic, other resources that people who are struggling economically rely on — such as food stamps, Medicaid and Social Security services — all went online. Organizations like Our Community Place stepped up to fill in the gap, helping people access benefits online. 

The pandemic has been especially hard on those experiencing homelessness.

“I think the word that comes to mind for me is isolation,” Nickels said. “People used to go and hang out in the public library, or use restrooms around town, interact with people in different places, and since the pandemic started, a lot of these places closed. And people just didn’t have anywhere to go.”

The staff at Our Community Place went from working five days a week to seven, and many experienced burnout during the pandemic. Nickels said for both staff and for those experiencing homelessness, the vaccine has offered a path back to “normal life.” 

Still, some people have been hesitant to get vaccinated, Nickels said, largely because of misinformation on the internet.

“Well, I think people have been influenced by a lot of the ‘honey-baloney’ that’s out there on social media — the false news stories,” Nickels said. “So, we try to talk through what the real information is from the VDH and from the CDC. We also help people, just to think about real concerns that they have, related to illnesses and conditions that they suffer. 

That, he said, sometimes takes a while “just to process that and become more comfortable with the idea of getting vaccinated.”

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