Chapel in the Pines hosts first COVID-19 vaccination clinic, sees low turnout

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CHAPEL HILL — Throughout much of Chatham County’s vaccine rollout, resident Dionicio Hernández didn’t ask himself whether he wanted to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Instead, he asked: “When?”

“I have a young daughter, a little girl, and I wouldn’t want her to get infected because of me,” Hernández, 36, told the News + Record in Spanish. “I work serving a lot of people. I talk to a lot of people. So I am very exposed.”

But many providers organize vaccine clinics on the weekdays — precisely when Hernández can’t make it. He sells tires nearly every day from his Pittsboro business, The Circle Used Tires, so when he heard about a Sunday vaccination clinic, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I’m almost always running all the time, and during the week I don’t have time,” he said. “Since I have a business, I have to be attending alone, and it gets a little difficult. That’s why I came on Sunday, since I don’t work Sunday.”

From 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church hosted its first COVID-19 vaccination clinic in partnership with the Hispanic Liaison and Greensboro-based medical provider Better Care. There, inside the church’s fellowship hall, or “hall for all,” Hernández sat down, rolled up his left sleeve and received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

He was one of few people who came: Only around nine or 10 passed through the clinic — far fewer than the clinic’s organizers had hoped. Two weeks ago, the Hispanic Liaison’s COVID-19 project manager, Will Mendoza, told the News + Record that organizers sought to vaccinate at least 100 people.

“But (we’re) happy that we got more people vaccinated,” Mendoza added.

According to Better Care’s Phillip Hobbs, the clinic also had available about 600 doses of all three COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the U.S. — 200 doses of Pfizer, 200 of Moderna and about 200 of Johnson & Johnson.

“These events are very unpredictable,” said Hobbs, Better Care’s managing partner and a doctor himself. “There’s events where you have like seven people show up, and then there’s events where you have 400 people show up. You don’t really know which one you’re going to be.”

Leading up to the event, all three organizers said they’d received “some response,” but not much.

And why such a low turnout?

“I think most of the low-hanging fruit’s already been harvested as far as getting people vaccinated,” Hobbs said, “and I think kind of the consensus in the medical community right now is that we need to go and meet patients where they are and then we also need to — for some people — reassure and educate them.”

Beyond vaccine doubts, though, Mendoza thinks another issue may have weakened response, particularly among the Hispanic community: lack of transportation.

“A lot of people were very interested because it was a weekend, and ... the challenge is the location. Transportation, it’s a big, big issue,” he said, adding, “So I think in regards to the day, there was enthusiasm from people saying, ‘Oh, great, I don’t have to work. I could go.’ Then it became: ‘Now, how do I get there?’”

The partners reached out to Chatham Transit Network to try to arrange transportation to the vaccine site, but Chatham Transit only operates on weekdays — though, Mendoza added, they were happy to operate on a Saturday with enough notice.

Despite the low turnout, Mendoza still considers the clinic a success.

“Even though it was a small number, people who went — at least from quick conversations — they couldn’t have made it any other day,” he said. “Saturdays don’t work well for them or the weekdays don’t work well for them, so having an event made it possible for them to get vaccinated.”

‘We really wanted to offer our space’

And that was precisely the point.

According to all three partners, the vaccination clinic’s purpose was to reach underserved communities as well as those who — like Hernández — couldn’t attend weekday clinics because of work.

“We are aware that North Chatham has a high percentage of people who are vaccinated, but the missing pieces are some of the communities that are underserved,” said Chapel in the Pines’ pastor, Andrew Taylor-Troutman. “So we wanted to specifically partner with (the Liaison) to try and reach into those, particularly Spanish-speaking communities, and we wanted to offer it on Sunday for people that work the other six days of the week.”

Other access issues also might prevent many from getting vaccinated, Hobbs added.

“They don’t have a phone, they don’t have access to internet, they don’t speak the language — or sometimes it’s all of those things compounded,” he said, “and it’s not that they don’t want to get vaccinated, it just doesn’t fit into their day to day.”

With that in mind, all three partners came together about a month ago to plan and prepare the event: Better Care provided the vaccines and personnel, the Hispanic Liaison provided bilingual outreach and Chapel in the Pines provided the place.

Located off Great Ridge Parkway, Chapel in the Pines is a relatively new presbyterian church. Surrounded by trees, it was chartered in 2009. The church had been partnering with the Hispanic Liaison since COVID-19 first broke out, helping those in dire economic straits pay their bills. To serve the larger community, the church soon settled on promoting and facilitating COVID-19 vaccinations.

“We’re very grateful to be able to actually host people in our space — not just people, members of this church, but in the service to the larger community,” Taylor-Troutman said. “As soon as it was safe, we really wanted to offer our space for others.”

Likewise, Better Care recently turned to COVID-19 vaccinations in collaboration with the Old North State Medical Society, one of America’s oldest medical societies for African American physicians. ONSMS, Hobbs said, provided Better Care with the necessary equipment for mobile vaccination clinics.

With Better Care’s help, plus that of Chatham’s health department, Chapel in the Pines transformed its space into a makeshift COVID-19 vaccination clinic — the first public indoor event the church has hosted since last March. The church’s sanctuary provided the space for patients’ 15- to 30-minute observation periods.

“The chance of an allergic reaction to the shot is extremely low. What (doctors) often see is people, they just get anxious,” Taylor-Troutman said. “So we wanted to use the sanctuary as a calming space. … A lot of people come into this space, and they have a sense that this is a special place.”

‘The next steps’

Chapel in the Pines will host a second-dose clinic on June 20 for patients who received both Pfizer and Moderna, but Taylor-Troutman hopes the church can continue holding clinics even beyond that.

“We hope to do it throughout the summer if there’s a need there,” he said adding, “Possibly even every week. … But I also think it could be helpful as they continue to offer it to younger people.”

Hobbs said Better Care was “open” to holding more clinics at the church — but he also said he thinks the future of COVID-19 vaccinations may lie in another environment.

“Other than this, almost every vaccination I’ve ever gotten has been in my doctor’s office,” he said. “So I mean — when was the last time you were vaccinated somewhere other than your doctor’s office? So we’re trying to take this back to the doctor’s office.”

That, he said, is part of their vaccination plan, besides taking vaccines to churches and other places people trust.

“Instead of having your average outpatient family medicine doctor do all that,” he added, “we would go out there with our mobile van and say, ‘Hey, tell your patients when they’re ready, we’re going to be here Tuesday, and we will vaccinate whoever shows up at your office.’”

For certain communities, Mendoza said he thinks “there’s a space for that,” but he doesn’t think the Hispanic community’s one of them, mainly thanks to cultural differences. He’s heard doctors say many people feel safer at doctors’ offices, and while younger Hispanic residents might agree with that, he’s not sure many others would.

“We only go to the doctor when we really have to go,” he said. “Culturally, I don’t think our community sees the doctor as the first resource for information; we only go to the doctor when we’re extremely, extremely sick.”

Instead, he thinks direct outreach — bringing vaccines to neighborhoods — and more targeted communication may be a good way to increase vaccination rates in the Hispanic community, pending more data.

From the many vaccination events the Liaison has organized, Mendoza said they’ve learned that some community members would like to get vaccinated but haven’t yet been able to. Some work three jobs; others don’t have transportation. Others still just need more information.

“Whatever information we have put out at the beginning touched the people who were interested,” he said. “Now we need to tailor that information to educate people who haven’t decided if they want to (get vaccinated) because XYZ, it doesn’t matter.”

Bringing vaccines directly to neighborhoods would eliminate many barriers to getting vaccinated, he said, serve up information and allow people the choice to get vaccinated on the spot.

“Those are the things that we’re learning from all these events ... that we need to put in more effort to educate people who haven’t made up their minds yet and listen to them, and answer to the challenges because they have their reasons for that, whether that’s education, or accessibility,” he said. “We need to start addressing those. As summer comes around, I think those are the next steps.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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