In the midst of another summer COVID-19 wave, community-based organizations nationwide are once again planning comprehensive fall vaccination campaigns. This time, however, plans will be shaped by the CDC’s three-shot strategy.
Public Good News talked with Elysia Jordan, vice president of nursing at Mary’s Center, who shared more about the organization’s commitment to its diverse communities and what they’ve learned over the years being on the frontlines of health care.
Public Good News: As scientists work to develop new and updated vaccines against COVID-19, the flu and RSV, how is Mary’s Center preparing for the fall?
Elysia Jordan: We’ve been getting [the COVID-19 vaccine] from the government for the entirety of the pandemic so far—and in the fall, we’re anticipating it going commercial, so we’re waiting for that shoe to drop.
We have a vaccine program for children, where we give vaccines from local jurisdictions through the CDC. But for adults, or folks that are uninsured, or kids who have private insurance, we’re anticipating having to purchase them.
We’re just trying to see what the landscape is looking like.
There’s potentially a new vaccine that we have to get familiar with, you know, the dosing, the storage, all that stuff that comes with the new COVID-19 vaccine, which we’re very experienced in, having done this for almost three years.
Our strategy going forward is that there are all different types of vaccines that we all need to stay healthy and to keep our public healthy, and COVID-19 is one of them, and just making [it] a part of the routine care of being a healthy person in society.
PGN: Can you share more about what makes the communities you serve distinct?
E.J.: We were founded 35 years ago to serve women and children fleeing conflict in Central America and seeking care. We’ve evolved significantly since then. We’re a federally qualified health center, so that means we provide care to anyone regardless of their ability to pay. Most of the population that we serve—more than 70 percent—speak a language other than English as their primary language, with Spanish being the overwhelming majority. We serve people from 50 countries—we have a strong reputation for serving the Latinx community, but also serving the immigrant and refugee community in the D.C. metropolitan area.
PGN: With your diverse communities in mind, what does it look like to normalize the idea that health is important and requires regular check-ups?
EJ: For the communities we serve, routine care is not always normalized, because it’s not accessible if you don’t have insurance.
By being where our community participants live and offering services in their language, or having access to interpreters if necessary: offering support, connecting [them] with the referral service specialists or getting [them] enrolled in emergency Medicaid or insurance so that they don’t have to go to the emergency room if there’s an issue…so I think just having a place.
The research always says that the number one biggest predictor of someone getting a vaccine is a strong recommendation from their provider. And we leaned into that.
That’s why [the federal government] gave us the vaccine early, because we were the provider for so many folks in the community. I think we’re better equipped now, because we’ve been doing this for a few years.
I think a lot of the beauty of Mary’s Center is that a lot of our staff come from the communities that we serve. By us getting the vaccine and being able to say, ‘Hey, we got it too.’ And, ‘You know, we hear your concerns, and this is why we chose to get it…’ I think it was pretty powerful in the beginning.
PGN: How does your staff’s reflection of the community enhance vaccination efforts?
EJ: When you have 70 percent of your population as Spanish speaking, you want a lot of your staff to be Spanish speaking, too. So, I think there’s some intentionality there.
Some of it is that our staff is home grown. I have staff that were in our teen program that are now working in our clinic. I have staff that went through our medical assistant education program and are now medical assistants at Mary’s Center.
We definitely believe in cultivating our staff. It’s intentionally seeking folks that have the skills and believe in the mission of Mary’s Center, but also people who actually use the services.
As a health care organization, we were allowed to vaccinate some of our staff in the earlier stages. And we had staff that were hesitant. That gave us our first run trying to navigate vaccine hesitancy in our community and gave us a lot of different strategies.
PGN: What guidance or lessons learned would you pass on to community health care workers engaged in vaccine outreach this fall?
EJ: Start talking about it now. We’ve already started talking about the flu, even though we don’t even have the flu vaccine yet for the next season. Start pulling your rates in the community and see how much vaccine your participants have gotten, and where you need to push, and where you need to have those targeted efforts.