‘House-To-House Combat’: New Vaccination Approach Targets Underserved Communities Around Hampton Roads
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency is ramping up efforts around Hampton Roads to vaccinate people who face barriers to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
The targeted outreach approach includes pop-up clinics at several churches and door-to-door visits, much like get-out-the-vote efforts, in neighborhoods with low vaccination rates.
Officials say mass vaccine sites, including one at Military Circle in Norfolk, have vaccinated thousands of people daily. However, the new grassroots phase of the immunization campaign is intended to help marginalized people who lack transportation to big vaccine sites or prefer to be vaccinated within their own communities where they feel more at ease.
“What we’re really trying to do here in the Hampton Roads area is get to the underserved population,” said Tim Smith, the FEMA site manager of the Military Circle clinic who is also overseeing the grassroots efforts around the region.
Teams of outreach workers have started walking through neighborhoods and door-knocking. They hand out fliers, talk with people about the vaccine and help them register for a shot.
FEMA also has held multiple pop-up clinics around the region, including one at St. Gregory The Great Catholic Church in Virginia Beach this past weekend where 352 people received a vaccine.
First Baptist Church South Hill in Chesapeake and Gethsemane Baptist Church in Newport News are hosting walk-up sites this week.
The clinics give out the two-shot Pfizer vaccine. There will be follow-up events at the same locations in May so residents can receive their second dose.
Officials and community leaders say the targeted approach could help vulnerable people of color who lack healthcare access and are getting vaccinated at lower rates than white residents.
Portsmouth’s population, for example, is nearly 55% Black and 40% white, according to U.S. Census data. However, 44% of vaccine doses have gone to Black residents while 47% go to white people.
Similar vaccine disparities are apparent in Newport News, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Hampton where Black and Latino residents receive a smaller share of doses than they represent in overall population.
Smith said more people of color have started getting shots at the Military Circle mass vaccination clinic recently — a significant shift after the site mostly saw white residents when it first opened in late March.
Still, several impediments have made mass vaccine sites an unrealistic option for many people.
Some people don’t have email accounts, computers or internet, making it hard for them to learn about the clinic and register for a shot. Smith said the Military Circle site has tried to accommodate such residents by opening to walk-ins, but some people still may not know the clinic exists.
Location is also critical. Smith and local church leaders noted that mass vaccination centers could be too far away for people who don’t have cars or can’t take time from work to travel long distances for a vaccine.
“The real task is going to be reaching those people who ride the bus or live in communities where they don’t have transportation,” said Geoffrey Guns, pastor of Second Calvary Baptist Church in Norfolk, which has hosted its own vaccination clinics.
“When you put a clinic in a neighborhood in a community where people can walk up to and they can register on site, it’s going to make a big difference in the number of people that you can vaccinate.”
Trust is another key factor. Community leaders say many residents feel more comfortable receiving their vaccines in smaller settings around people they know.
“A lot of undocumented people fear to go places they don’t know,” said Janice Figueroa-López, Hispanic ministry coordinator with St. Gregory The Great Catholic Church. “We’re trying to break that fear for them.”
For Kamron Blue of Portsmouth, a past clinic at Second Calvary Baptist Church helped convince him to get the shot. Blue initially had reservations about the vaccine because it’s so new.
He volunteered at the church’s clinic and watched people's excitement as they received the shots. Soon, he was in line to get his own.
“Being in a familiar space in a familiar environment with people that I know and love dearly — that is sort of what led to me deciding to get to the vaccine,” he said.
An additional benefit of smaller sites is they are easier to staff. Guns at Second Cavalry noted that his church hosted a pop-up clinic where just three people administered 180 doses.
The vaccination rate at the Military Circle site has held steady at about 2,000 shots a day, FEMA officials said. But Guns predicted that turnout at the bigger sites will plateau and decline — it’s already happening in many areas around the country.
When that happens, a targeted grassroots vaccination approach will be critical to vaccinating people who have fallen through the cracks of the larger sites, he said.
Guns is disappointed that federal and state officials did not launch the targeted approach sooner. He said officials should now try to open as many pop-up clinics as possible.
“Maybe it’s a mobile clinic that pops up in front of a WaWa or in a supermarket parking lot,” he said. “This is like house-to-house combat...You’ve got to figure out a way to reach people where they are.”
WHRO's Hannah Schuster contributed to this story.