By Sabrina Jennings, Pastor at Eikon Church
Published October 13, 2021
On a Saturday in early September, more than 40 people were vaccinated against COVID-19 at a Vaccine Action Collaborative (VAC) clinic hosted at Strawn Elementary school in rural Caldwell County. As the team was packing up for the night, a woman named Sylvia walked in and asked if she was too late to receive a vaccine. She had received her first dose at the Mexican consulate several months ago and had put off getting the second dose. But when she saw the information on the clinic being held near her home, at an elementary school she was familiar with, she headed that way. Happily, one of the nurses unpacked a syringe and administered the vaccine that will offer better protection for Sylvia and her family against COVID-19.
Sylvia’s story is just one of hundreds of examples where organizations like VAC are working to increase vaccine uptake—from neighborhood to neighborhood—to educate, build trust, and eliminate barriers. As more people receive the vaccine, this work is becoming highly individualized, relying on trusted messengers, community organizations, and grassroots efforts to connect with the hard-to-reach and hard-to-convince.
The VAC began in early May with funding provided by a grant from St. David’s Foundation and Austin Community Foundation and administered by United Way for Greater Austin to focus on Caldwell County and neighboring areas struggling with lower vaccination rates as compared to nearby counties. The VAC is made up of eight predominantly BIPOC churches whose congregations have been outspoken on the importance of loving their neighbors through following health and safety guidelines. The leaders of the collaborative see vaccine efforts as an extension of our faith calling. Our churches are in communities that have long been underserved and where resources are limited. As such, our efforts center around addressing inequities that cause our neighbors to have the least protection, carrying a disproportionate share of the loss of finances, life, and well-being. The trusted relationships that my fellow faith leaders and I have developed with our communities have allowed us to meet people where they are on concerns and fears around the vaccine, while bringing the clinics directly to them.
The VAC is uniquely positioned to do this work. As Rhonda Hunnicutt, a Wesley Nurse based at First United Methodist Church Luling, explains, “We believe that a key to reaching people is through relationships of trust, something we’ve already worked hard to build within our churches and with the wider community. When it comes to making healthcare decisions such as getting vaccinated, people need to have confidence in where their information and guidance are coming from. That is what we can provide because we exist to serve the community.” From this strong foundation, the VAC has built a wide network of partners that includes government officials, healthcare providers, educators, and other social service providers.
Eikon Church, where I serve as a pastor, and all VAC member churches have identified a point person who works closely with community members through direct in-person outreach and education with congregants. Beyond our churches, we focus on frequented community locations, such as corner stores and mercados, while also partnering with other entities that serve as trusted sources of information, like nonprofits, schools, libraries, and community centers. Working through these avenues helps develop positive relationships that open the door to reach people facing barriers or who are vaccine-hesitant.
Many who have signed up for vaccination with the VAC face obstacles such as lack of transportation, work hour conflicts, and language barriers. We address these obstacles by providing the much-needed resources, bilingual assistance, and weekend and evening vaccination clinics to accommodate all members our community.
“We want to make getting the vaccine easy, accessible, and as positive an experience as possible,” Hunnicutt says. “That’s why we’re incorporating food and gift card giveaways and bringing in other services such as health screenings. We follow up by phone to check in on how they feel after the vaccine. We want people to feel good about getting vaccinated; protecting themselves and their loved ones.”
Often, it comes down to developing an ongoing relationship that inspires patience and trust to move someone who is hesitant to receive the vaccine. We see individuals that registered to receive a vaccine at one of our clinics months ago, but have changed their mind due to unanswered questions or misinformation around vaccine safety. A simple text message offering to talk to a nurse about concerns has moved people who are hesitant to receive the vaccine—a reflection of our commitment to helping every member of our community with access to the information and resources the need to receive the vaccine.
The health and well-being of our community is important and it’s why I’m dedicated to listening to and serving our community. I encourage you to learn more about how you, your loved one or neighbor can get a vaccine in your community by scheduling appointments for vaccines at https://www.covac.app/ or following the VAC on Twitter.
Sabrina Jennings, Pastor at Eikon Church