Siler City nonprofit hosts ‘smooth’ vaccination clinic — but with lower turnout than expected

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SILER CITY — Inside Vidas de Esperanza Clinic last Saturday, Siler City resident María Blanca E. López López sat on the examination chair, waiting to receive her first Moderna shot. Her jacket was halfway off, and she had her left sleeve rolled up and ready.

And right before the nurse administered the shot, she thought of her family.

“It’s a form of protection for me and for my family,” López López told the News + Record in Spanish about the vaccine. She added: “We’re in an opportunity to take it right now. I don’t know what will happen after.”

López López was one among dozens of people, mostly Hispanic, to get vaccinated against COVID-19 last Saturday at Vidas de Esperanza’s first vaccine clinic, an event organized and carried out in partnership with UNC. The clinic drew people of various ages, races and ethnicities from Siler City and beyond — including an entire family from High Point and Asheboro.

Yet, turnout wasn’t quite as high as organizers had originally hoped.

“When you’re serving the community, you always want to provide services for as many people as possible, and we were aiming at serving 150 vaccines,” said Ascary Arias, founder and president of Vidas de Esperanza Clinic. “ … (A little more than) 70 were vaccinated, so we’re happy that we were able to vaccinate that many people, but we were hoping we could vaccinate 150, of course.”

Located on 401 N. Ivey Ave., Vidas de Esperanza (Spanish for “Lives of Hope”) is a Siler City medical and dental clinic that offers free services to those who can’t otherwise afford health care — primarily to residents in Chatham County, though the clinic treats people from surrounding counties as well. Vidas works with the UNC School of Dentistry and School of Medicine.

“They actually provide me with physicians and with dentists to do all the work that we do for free for the Chatham community,” Arias told the News + Record last Wednesday, adding, “As a result of all the work that we’ve been doing with UNC, UNC saw it fit that we start doing vaccinations in our clinic.”

Originally, the clinic had planned to administer 150 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, Arias said, based on the Latino community’s response. About 95% of the clinic’s patients are Hispanic. On April 13, however, the North Carolina Dept. of Health and Human Services suspended administration of the J&J shot — following CDC and FDA guidance — after several people developed rare blood clot disorders.

And once that news came out, the clinic switched to 150 doses of Moderna instead with UNC’s help.

“They’re aware of the impact that we have in the community and specifically the Chatham community,” Arias said of UNC last week. “... We couldn’t just leave them (the people who’d signed up) hanging, so they decided, you know, we promised you 150 vaccines or however many. We’re going to give you 150 vaccines of Moderna instead.”

Staff quickly communicated the switch to patients and others who’d signed up, Arias said, but quite a few still canceled their appointments thanks to the state’s decision. At first, about 100 people had signed up for their clinic, but by last Thursday, they had closer to 90 people signed up — about 80% of which were Latino, Arias estimated.

“The majority are Latinos because we started with our list of patients when we started calling people,” he said, “but you know, we will call 20 and five of them will say, ‘OK, I want it.’”

Yet, 90 appointments out of 150 hadn’t been too far off the mark: the clinic also welcomed walk-in appointments, and according to Vidas Assistant Director Carolina Torres, they’d set aside a certain amount of doses for just that.

“The doctors don’t want to turn away anyone without getting vaccines,” Torres told the News + Record last Wednesday. “We will probably have 50 more vaccines for people who don’t have appointments.”

As it turned out, though, the clinic didn’t receive many walk-ins Saturday — perhaps only one or two, Arias said. Some people who’d originally canceled arrived after the clinic finished, he added, but it wasn’t enough to open another bottle of vaccine. The remaining doses returned with UNC.

“You could get 10 out of each bottle, and once you open it, that’s it,” he said. “You either use it all or throw away the rest.”

And why the low turnout? Mostly likely vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, Arias guessed.

“People are scared,” he said, adding, “There’s so much going on and ... culturally not being pro-vaccinations, a lot of people just don’t want to get it. They’re like, ‘Well, you know, I just don’t think I can. Maybe later.’ They don’t give out a specific answer. It’s just a lot of hesitation.”

Though a bit disappointed with the turnout, Arias said the clinic ran “very, very smoothly.” About 20 UNC staff and volunteers — plus five or so from Vidas, including Arias and Torres — directed the clinic, administered shots and registered people for their second appointments.

At the end, staff observed those recently vaccinated for any adverse reactions under an outdoor tent with 11 chairs, each separated from each other by six feet. Meanwhile, Vidas volunteers checked people in, screened them for COVID exposure and directed traffic.

Arias said he hopes the next vaccine clinic will be a lot more successful — at least, if Vidas hosts another one.

Last week, he told the News + Record that he hoped Saturday’s clinic wouldn’t be Vidas’ last. But the decision to continue the vaccine clinics lies with UNC, he added, and the surefire way to guarantee more clinics — show that supply doesn’t meet demand — didn’t play out as he’d hoped.

“We were wondering what another clinic would be like,” he said. “Will it be the same? Will it be a bit worse? We feel like people that really want to get vaccinated are the ones that are getting vaccinated right now. Everybody else, it’s one of those situations where you have to sort of, like, drag them to the vaccination site.”

They’ll know soon, though, he added, since Vidas needs time to spread the word and call patients to schedule vaccinations. They’ll hold a follow-up vaccine clinic on May 15 to give those vaccinated Saturday their second Moderna doses.

“That would be the perfect time to start another round of vaccines,” Arias said. “It remains to be seen what they (UNC) will decide to do. I, of course, would be open to it. Even if we only give out 10 vaccines, I’d be open to it.”

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

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