'If you build it, they will come' does not apply to COVID-19 vaccination clinics

Breaking the 'chains of transmission' will take more work — one person, one COVID-19 vaccination clinic at a time.

Before sunrise on Saturday, Aug. 28, I stood at the corner of East 17th Street and University Avenue on Des Moines’ east side. Still half asleep, I watched as my husband and his co-worker took the banner I'd made and hung it on a fence near Christ Apostolic Temple. It read: COVID-19 Vaccination Here.

After spending more than a year writing about the coronavirus pandemic's effect on Black Iowans, I joined forces with Dwight Reed, pastor of Christ Apostolic Church, to host a vaccination clinic in our racially diverse neighborhood. Hy-Vee, which has vaccinated millions of people in the 8-state area where the grocer operates, provided two pharmacists and the Pfizer vaccine. AARP Iowa graciously donated 100 care kits for participants. The kit contained a full-size bottle of hand sanitizer, a thermometer, a box of tissues, a cloth face mask and a bottle of Gatorade.

Vaccination clinic volunteers: Monica and Garrison Goodlett, Joey Gene, Dwight Reed, Joanna Smith, Vance Hawthorne and visitor, Jacquie Easley McGhee. Photo by Black Iowa News.

For weeks, Reed, Sherrie Pruitt, Reed's secretary, and I traded countless emails organizing the clinic. We posted flyers in English and Spanish, ran social media ads, solicited volunteers, and Reed created a video to publicize the clinic. During the planning in July and early August, the delta variant began decimating the unvaccinated across the nation. The timing of the clinic felt urgent. Our goal: vaccinate 100 Des Moines residents.

Sherrie Pruitt puts up a sign at the beginning of the COVID-19 vaccination clinic held on Aug. 28 at Christ Apostolic Church. Photo by Black Iowa News.

We prepared for 100 people knowing that the country is still drowning in misinformation and disinformation. We understood the specific barriers and the hesitancy. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, 80% of Iowans hospitalized and 88% of the patients in ICUs are unvaccinated. Nearly 18 months after the pandemic hit and nearly nine months after the vaccines first landed in Iowa, we were excited to be able to bring the vaccines into the neighborhood and help improve access and help remove some barriers.

Vials of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at our Aug. 28 COVID-19 vaccination clinic. Photo by Black Iowa News.

I kept telling myself no matter how many people showed up — if only one person showed up — I’d feel satisfied. As I arrived at the 500-member church, I felt excited. Reed is a strong believer in helping the community, and we both feel strongly about the safety and necessity of the vaccines. We were ready.

AARP Iowa donated 100 care kits to vaccine clinic participants. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Ten minutes after the clinic opened at 9 a.m., two young Vietnamese men came in to get vaccinated. I felt elated. Our efforts had paid off. Then, more people trickled in. A white couple. A Black family of three. A Black grandmother with her two teenage grandsons. While planning the event, a Hy-Vee spokesperson told me their goal is performing 25 vaccinations per hour. We'd vaccinated 10 people the first hour. Still, I felt hopeful.

I stood outside the church later, sweating profusely as I went live on Facebook to share details about delta and invite more people to get vaccinated. Inside, Reed, Pruitt, nurse Monica Goodlett and her husband, Garrison, Vance Hawthorne and others assisted those who attended, led them to a cool area to recover after the shot, passed out water and hand them care packages on the way out.

Shortly before noon, I asked the pharmacists how many people we’d vaccinated, and they responded: 13.

When Jacquie Easley McGhee, state area health chair for the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP Conference of Branches and director of health equity and community and diversity resources for MercyOne Des Moines Medical Center, stopped by, she asked, and I told her we'd vaccinated 13 people. She responded that's 13 people who won’t have to go to the hospital. Everyone nodded in agreement.

Signs outside Christ Apostolic Temple during a COVID-19 vaccination clinic held on Aug. 28. Photo by Black Iowa News.

I left the event feeling happy that we'd been able to see it through and that we vaccinated people. Later, though, I started to feel glum. I’d been warned by health professionals about low attendance at community-led vaccination clinics. I'm well-acquainted with Iowa's low Black vaccination rate, which the Kaiser Family Foundation puts at about 25% with one dose. About 56% of Iowans have been vaccinated with one dose, according to the New York Times database.

I started thinking about all of the work we'd put in and wondered what had we really accomplished. So I asked Dr. Eli Perencevich, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa's Carver College of Medicine, whom I follow on Twitter, to provide some perspective. What was the impact of vaccinating 13 people against COVID-19?

Perencevich said the benefits are two-fold for each person vaccinated. He said a fully vaccinated person is 60-80% less likely to get infected and if infected they are also less likely to spread the virus. He said the average person infected with delta spreads the virus to six to eight other people. Each person vaccinated stops many “chains of transmission” so that there is a larger community protection benefit, he said.

“Vaccination reduces the risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death across all age groups 90-95%,” he said.

“So if you vaccinated mostly older people, you could have prevented two-three hospitalizations and maybe a death,” he told me, via Twitter.

“With delta, we think 80-90% of all people will become infected if not vaccinated, so every single vaccination protects the individual and the community (including their families),” he said.

Perspective.

As I drove through my neighborhood today to take down the flyers we'd stapled to utility poles, those sobering statistics reminded me about why I wanted to have the clinic in the first place — to help spare people from being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19.

Our clinic is over. The banner is down now. But, the need for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations remain.

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