Every time Susan Rouse tried to register online for the COVID-19 vaccine, she never got to the right spot.
“I did exactly as I was told, but I just couldn’t seem to connect to the right place. Everywhere I went, it started telling me all about the vaccine but not how to register for it,” said the 80-year-old, who then laughed and said: “I think it’s probably the computer user who has the problem.”
Rouse, who lives in Spotsylvania County, shared her story with others during a virtual Sunday school class at Fredericksburg United Methodist Church. The next thing she knew, she was partnered with a Vaccine Buddy as part of the church’s program to help local seniors navigate the vaccine registration process.
Her buddy, Sherry Hession, got Rouse and her husband, Roger, signed up and told her it would probably be a few weeks until she got an appointment.
“It doesn’t matter, at least I’m on the list,” Susan Rouse said.
That scenario is being repeated throughout the Rappahannock Area Health District, said Katina Howard, the district’s care resource coordinator. As she’s worked during the pandemic to bring assistance to neighborhoods that need it most, she’s been pleased, but not surprised, by the response.
“It brings me great joy to see how our community is coming together,” she said. “What I see the churches doing, what I see our community partners doing, it’s all exactly what I expect for us to do because that’s who we are,” she said. “Unfortunately, sometimes it takes us going through challenging times for us to see what we’re purposed to do and the things we can accomplish together.”
At Mount Zion Baptist Church in Spotsylvania County, the Rev. Charles Wormley and his wife, Pat, are focused on getting as many members of their African-American congregation vaccinated as possible. They’re trying to dispel what Dr. Cheryl Ivey Green of the Virginia African-American Advisory Board described as skepticism about the vaccine—and its distribution among communities of color, even as they have been hardest hit.
“One of the major concerns is that the African-American community is receiving the vaccine at a far lower rate than others, so there is some level of mistrust about access,” Green said. “We are dying at a rate of three times that of others in the community so we need the vaccine.”
Like the Vaccine Buddies, Mount Zion volunteers have helped register more than 50 seniors for the COVID-19 shots. They’ve also called to remind them of appointments and make sure they have rides to clinics.
Each Sunday during the service, a registered nurse who heads the church’s health and wellness ministry talks about COVID cases across the local area, state and nation. Because many in the congregation are coming up on their second vaccine dose—when people tend to experience some side effects as the mounts a defense against the virus—the nurse “is going to talk to them so they will know what to expect and not be anxious,” Pat Wormley said.
It’s part of their ongoing mission to minister to the whole person and carry on the tradition of the church as the trusted go-to-place in a community, the Wormleys said.
“We believe by doing it through the church, people will be more apt to believe the information, accept the information and go get the vaccine because it comes through the church,” the pastor said. “People trust what goes on in the church community, and they will listen to the pastor, the deacons, the leadership. They won’t be as apprehensive about the information they’re getting.”
Likewise, people in Latino communities will absorb information—not necessarily what’s written on fliers but what they hear and see from people who look like them, said Sue Smith, director of LUCHA Ministries. Her agency works with some of the most vulnerable Hispanic immigrants.
Smith was contacted by Luznette Ramirez–Martinez, an outreach coordinator with the local health district, about how to spread the word about the vaccine among Latinos, who have been sickened and hospitalized from the virus at higher rates than their white counterparts. Smith said fliers written in Spanish are helpful, but a better option is vaccinating volunteers—who deliver much needed food baskets each week to those who’ve tested positive or are so disabled or elderly that they’re not able to get out much.
Then, they can tell others, Smith said. And so on.
“That’s generally how info spreads within the Latino community, by word of mouth. So-and-so told me this and so-and-so told me about that agency, they regularly share their relationships and their experiences about programs, what’s user friendly,” she said. “If it’s backed up by a website, links and even digital information, that’s even better.”
Health district officials followed that suggestion and vaccinated some Latino essential volunteers as well as elderly residents and those with chronic conditions. Smith believes “the frontline people who’ve actually gone through the experience are the best advocates” and hopes word of their positive experiences will spread.
Howard appreciates “the power of influencers” in the community, such as churches, and says the health district is reaching out to faith-based leaders interested in passing along information to their congregations. Anyone interested in participating can contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 540/899-4797.
Likewise, residents who aren’t associated with a particular church but would like to find someone nearby to help, either with information or resources, can contact the local call center for information, Howard said.
The Virginia Department of Health on Wednesday unveiled its statewide call center—at 877/829-4682—and it’s designed to help seniors or others who lack internet access register for the vaccine. Open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily and with 750 operators, the center was designed to help callers walk through the process of getting registered over the phone so that local health officials could focus on more issues in their own communities, such as finding ways to reach more people in underserved or minority communities.
At Fredericksburg UMC, Trish Vaughan helped start the Vaccine Buddies in addition to her work with the food pantry, which provides items for 400 families a month. She’s not sure if the buddies will still be needed with the new call center in place, but said the group’s 14 volunteers are still eager to serve.
Sometimes that simply means providing a friendly voice on the other line.
“I know I’ve heard about the frustrations, the long waits on hold; we’ve heard about that everywhere,” Vaughan said, explaining how the group got started. “We’re happy to be an empathetic ear for anyone who contacts us as many of us are waiting also and also worried about our seniors.”
Healthy Generations Agency on Aging has filled that role, long before the pandemic hit, and Howard said she is constantly amazed by the group’s sensitivity as well as its ability to provide, “not just what people can use but what people need,” she said.
She recalled a Christmas project with the agency after a local supermarket donated a significant amount of toilet paper, paper towels and hand sanitizer. Health district officials took the haul to Healthy Generations, “and they took them to seniors for Christmas. They really are willing to look outside the box to meet people at their needs.”
And those needs vary by degrees. Vaughan heard from some seniors who mistakenly thought health officials would call them—or even come to their door—to provide information about the vaccine. She’s pointed out that is not the case.
Others, like Jean Himmel who’s 79 and participates in church and Sunday school through Zoom, had no problem registering online for the vaccine. But she later realized the system wouldn’t accept two names with the same email address, so she didn’t know how to sign up her husband, Dan, who’s 92 and on dialysis.
Church buddy Damien Weiss not only set up a new email account, but also took care of getting Dan Himmel registered. He also offered help with any other technical issues.
“He was really helpful,” Jean Himmel said.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425