With vaccine supply more readily available, the barrier for some communities has become finding ways to vaccinate those who are hard to reach. Melinda Sawyer, vice president of clinical quality and patient safety for UnitedHealthcare Global, knows this challenge well.
As the chief volunteer officer for The Johns Hopkins Brancati Center, Melinda recalls meeting a woman who used a cane and had difficulty walking. None of her family or friends had access to a car, and she was too afraid of contracting COVID-19 to take the bus to a vaccination site. Her story, and others like it, is what compels Melinda to spend her free time working to increase vaccination access for underserved communities.
Through her volunteer work at the nonprofit health center in Baltimore, she has seen first-hand how these barriers to the COVID-19 vaccine are particularly challenging for people of color, low-income populations and rural communities. Giving her own time and energy as an advanced practice nurse, she helped the Brancati Center organize vaccination clinics since April, specifically focused on communities with limited access to vaccines. With help from a team of 26 clinician and non-clinician volunteers, the clinics are being hosted in partnership with local churches and the Johns Hopkins Medicine health equity taskforce and mobile vaccination team.
“COVID-19 has caused disproportionate harm to already disadvantaged communities,” Melinda said. “In Maryland, African Americans are 29% of the state’s population but they account for 41% of the COVID-19 deaths. The Brancati Center has partnered with community leaders and organizations for years, so we were the group our community leaders turned to when they couldn’t get their own communities’ access to vaccines.”
During the first event on April 17, the team planned to administer 150 vaccines. Demand was so high that they ultimately vaccinated 268 people. A follow-up clinic took place to provide the second dose of the vaccine on May 15 and the team was able to achieve a 98% vaccination rate.
What’s more, if community members who were unable to get to the clinic, volunteers went out in teams of two to vaccinate people in their homes.
The woman with limited mobility and a lack of transportation told Melinda at both vaccine clinics how incredibly grateful she was to be able to walk just one block to get her vaccine. What’s more, the woman convinced her daughter, who was hesitant at first, to get vaccinated as well.
“It is an honor to serve my community in this way,” Melinda said.