CH@T: One-stop ‘Hub’ dedicated to factual, relevant information about COVID-19

Chatham Health Alliance, Council on Aging team up for Aug. 6 event in Goldston

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The Chatham Community Resource Hub is a mobile, co-located collaboration between the Chatham Health Alliance and partner agencies. On Aug. 6, the Alliance and the Chatham Council on Aging will join for a second Hub, this one at the Goldston Public Library. The focus: sharing critical information about COVID-19 vaccines and scheduling appointments for those seeking them.

This week, we speak with two of those working to prepare for the event, Sara Martin and Jimmy Lewis.

Martin is the social and community services manager for the Chatham Health Alliance. A graduate of the University of South Florida — where she received her Master of Public Health in International Health — she’s has lived and worked in Chatham County for four years. In addition to her work for the Health Alliance, she is the lead organizer for CORE (Communities Organizing for Racial Equity) and serves on the board for Communities In Schools of Chatham County and Robin Hood’s Kitchen. Martin has been a pivotal part of the Resource Hub since its inception in June 2020.

Lewis is the grants and communications specialist for the Chatham County Council on Aging. He joined the agency last October and is responsible for the agency’s grant identification, application and reporting processes while overseeing its public outreach plan over print and digital platforms.

A former journalist, Lewis entered the field of aging services after a career that yielded 13 awards in the N.C. Press Association’s annual News, Editorial & Photojournalism Contest.

The Chatham Health Alliance has been hosting monthly Community Resource Hubs, so what’s different and unique about what’s planned for Aug. 6?

LEWIS: Typically, the Hubs are one-stop shops or mobile resource fairs on a variety of topics. This will be the second Hub specifically dedicated to distributing factual and relevant information regarding COVID-19 vaccines and scheduling appointments, from first doses to second boosters, if eligible. The Chatham County Council on Aging received grant funding in February from the Triangle J Council of Governments towards COVID-19 vaccination education and outreach. We found a willing partner in Chatham Health Alliance, which had already pioneered the successful Community Resource Hubs. It only made sense to lean on their expertise and tailor it to events with an emphasis on improving vaccination rates across all of Chatham County. While the intent of the grant is to specifically boost vaccination rates among Chatham’s older adult population, all are welcome to come Aug. 6 to Goldston Public Library and schedule appointments for any “level” of vaccination. The vaccinations are not administered on site, but people can be scheduled for convenient locations quickly.

MARTIN: The Community Resource Hub began in June 2020 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With businesses and organizations shuttered, there was a need for the community to access not only personal protective equipment, but other resources they regularly utilized that were no longer available to them. The goal was to bring these resources directly to the community.

We began by partnering with CORA — an organization that provides food to people who encounter food insecurity in the community — at their monthly mobile food distribution on Technology Way behind Chatham Hospital. In March 2021, the Hub began partnering with the Inter-faith Food Shuttle. We were able to go directly into neighborhoods, parks and other well-trafficked areas of the county to provide hot meals and resources. The Hub has since been able to procure sponsorships that subsidize local food trucks to hand out these meals at our events.

As pandemic restrictions have waned throughout the country and Chatham County, the need for easily accessible resources has not diminished. The Hub is seeking to find new ways to collaborate with our partnering organizations to maximize the benefit to community members as well as the organizations that seek to serve them. We operate in all areas of the county and try to travel to those places where there is a specific need identified by organizations or the community. When the Council on Aging reached out to the Chatham Health Alliance to ask about collaborating on a grant to provide information about booster shots, we agreed to help plan the events. If the Resource Hub can plan an event in the community to help promote programs, deliver services, resources and information or make referrals that benefit the community, then we have done our job.

The first COVID-specific Hub was June 25. What did you learn, and what can those who go expect for the Aug. 6 Hub?

LEWIS: Owning to the dog days of summer, we decided to conduct this Hub from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. instead of the 1 to 4 p.m. we did for the June Hub. We tweaked our outreach strategy a little to make it clear that this isn’t a single file, transactional event revolving around COVID-19 vaccination information and appointments. We want folks to come and linger, having fun, food and fellowship with us and our friends from Chatham County Cooperative Extension. And if they’re lacking on their COVID-19 booster shots, swing by our appointment tent and we will be happy to get you set up with a location in your area.

MARTIN: Every Hub event is unique. The majority of our events occur in locations that we have never been previously, so the logistics look a little different every time, making it hard to predict what each event might look like. The June 25 event was held at the West Chatham Senior Center in Siler City. Participants who showed up there were concerned about the growing number of COVID cases and eager to schedule first and second booster shots, as well as a few who wanted to schedule their initial dose. At the Aug. 6 event, participants can receive up-to-date information on vaccines, COVID testing and booster shots from the Public Health Department. Additionally, we will have medication disposal resources from Insight Human Services, free books generously provided by the Chatham Education Foundation, programs and resources from 4-H, as well as other ways to get involved in the community with organizations like the Chatham Health Alliance and Communities Organizing for Racial Equity (CORE). Every participant will be able to bring home a meal for their entire family as well.

When you talk about “factual, relevant” information about vaccines, it’s interesting to note a recent study that showed the majority of people haven’t budged from their initial impressions about COVID and vaccines — that those who were reluctant or skeptical early on remain so, for example. What will your strategy be when it comes to sharing the best and most relevant information?

MARTIN: We will have up-to-date information from the Chatham County Public Health Department, as well as qualified personnel there to answer questions and guide them through the appointment-making process, where walk-ins are not accepted. Information about testing and where to go will also be provided for those interested.

LEWIS: Let me first say this: I had COVID-19 for the first time in June despite two vaccines and one booster. They are intended — and were always intended — to reduce the probability of serious illness or death. And if what I had was classified as a “mild” case of COVID, I in no way want to encounter the “moderate” or “severe” editions.

Even with my personal testimony on the matter, we are still dealing with that famous Ronald Reagan quote from his presidency: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

Unfortunately, many of those who are vaccine skeptical hold some version of this belief. And the reality of the situation is, that no matter how well-intentioned, the message will not be received if the messenger is distrusted or originates from distrusted “official” channels. To try to counter this, we have invited Chatham County Cooperative Extension out to our Hub events. They have established relationships with many of our target communities and the idea, simple as it may be, is to coexist in a single location. While folks are checking out Extension cooking demonstrations or picking up 4-H learning kits, they are welcome to slide over to the Council on Aging/Chatham Health Alliance area and sign up for that vaccination appointment that’s been placed on the back burner. But don’t leave hungry!

What does your own preparation and planning for these Hubs tell you about vaccination rates in Chatham County?

LEWIS: As you travel to points west and south in Chatham County, vaccination rates begin to decrease dramatically while the skepticism rises. Without diving too deep into the numbers game, when we submitted our grant proposal to Triangle J in February, we found that 75% of Chatham’s 65-and-over residents were at least partially vaccinated. Today, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reports that 63% of Chatham residents have at least one dose, but less than half (49%) of the county has had a second dose or the first booster shot.

According to the Chatham County Public Health Department’s 2020 report “Spotlight on Health Disparities in Chatham County,” the county’s median income is $66,875. But once you head west into Siler City, that dips below $35,000. That points to an extreme wealth disparity in Chatham, which correlates in turn to vaccine skepticism. It’s important to note that the vaccine is free, even for those who do not otherwise have health insurance. While that statement may seem like common knowledge to a lot of us some two and a half years into the pandemic, it is still a question that gets asked.

MARTIN: I think Jimmy outlined the data well in his response. It is clear that the need for vaccines is still prevalent in some areas. This is an important issue that the Council on Aging is seeking to address. Our experience from the first Hub was very informative in that there are people in the County still seeking out information and resources who may not know where to go or how to access them. If we can bring that information directly to people who need them, then I will consider the event a success.

Can you share a story or experience from the first Hub?

LEWIS: Sure. Our vision for these Hubs in the planning process was for them to be a place where Chatham residents could come schedule COVID-19 vaccination appointments and receive information in a safe, welcoming environment. With our first hub being at the Western Chatham Senior Center in Siler City, people had access to our rocking chair porch where they could leisurely chat and enjoy a meal from our food provider, Robin Hood’s Kitchen. During what was a perfect weather day, we had families take advantage of that.

Others stopped by to primarily visit the Chatham County Cooperative Extension tent; then finally made their way over to see what vaccination information we had to offer. The casual nature of the day — folks coming and going while visiting different event partners and not just the vaccination component — was what we were aiming for.

If you try to be too heavy-handed with this topic and create an environment where you are dictating as opposed to inviting, you will turn individuals off immediately. Given the areas and populations of Chatham we are attempting to reach, you can’t afford to do that.

MARTIN: At the June 25 event, we were able to guide one couple through the questionnaire necessary to receive their booster shots through their preferred pharmacy. The wife spent a few minutes talking to us about how frustrating it was to receive so much conflicting information about the vaccines on the news programs she watches. She also took the time to share with us some of her story about how she grew up in Chatham County, her career as an elementary school teacher and how the pandemic had affected her family. One of the greatest strengths of the Hubs is their ability to foster relationships with the community, build trust and a more in-depth understanding of the pressures facing individuals and families on a daily basis.

The Resource Hub will keep showing up and keep learning from these stories and will keep partnering with organizations throughout the county to promote programs and resources being offered. If you wish to have the Hub come to a neighborhood or location near you or you would like to partner with the Hub, please send an email to smartin@chathamhealthalliancenc.org

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