Local groups battle vaccine hesitancy, increase accessibility

Community organizations are rallying to vaccinate Clarke County School District students and their families against COVID-19. 

Experts from the Innovative Health Institute (IHI) answered student questions during the Oct. 13 lunch period ahead of Cedar Shoals’ vaccine drive, to be held Oct. 20 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

“We’re making sure everyone understands that vaccines are safe, they save lives and that over 750,000 people have died from COVID-19,” IHI owner Dr. Cshanyse Allen said. “We definitely don’t want to force anything on anyone — just give good information. That’s why we didn’t just come out and vaccinate today. We wanted to be here so they could see us, ask questions, feel comfortable and then come back next week to get vaccinated.”

Students who are vaccinated at the drive will receive a $100 gift card and have their name submitted in a drawing for a $500 scholarship. At Clarke Central High School, where a similar information session was held and a vaccine drive is scheduled for Oct. 21, as well as CCSD middle schools, students getting vaccinated will reap the same benefits. 

Though the Health Department is offering similar vaccine incentives, the perks that will be awarded to CCSD students are funded entirely by community donations, according to Allen. IHI, the East Athens Development Corporation and Athens Downtown Development Authority donated. Additionally, the Athens alumni chapter of Delta Sigma Theta is providing snacks and University of Georgia Doctors Without Borders will be volunteering.

“This is truly a community event. We just want the best for the high school students,” Allen said. “We understand the school can’t do it all, so we are here as a community partner to make sure it happens safely.”

READY TO EDUCATE: Allen sits at IHI’s station to help students learn about vaccines and register for the drive. She says misunderstanding and spreading outdated information is one of the primary ways by which students become confused about the vaccine. “Because COVID-19 is so new for us, everyone is still learning. The information that we got a year ago has changed,” Allen said. “People may get old information and misconstrue it and add other pieces on — hear a piece here, hear a piece there and add it together.” Photo by Jackie Wright.

Approximately 44% of Athenians are fully vaccinated. Much of the other 56%, Allen says, are vaccine hesitant because of unfounded rumors or inaccurate assumptions. 

“They don’t have enough information or that it’s too new — that was a common thread that we’ve heard for the past few months. My response is that this vaccine has been in development for a while and is not new,” Allen said. “We have to understand that vaccines save lives, and a lot of them (students) don’t realize that they’ve had vaccines before.”

Dr. Diane Dunston, pediatrician, offered her expertise in vaccines to passing students. 

“There are many reasons for people to have vaccine hesitancy. One of the big reasons people are not getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is because it’s been so politicized, so much false information, too many non-experts giving advice,” Dunston said. “The strategy is to treat people with respect. Listen to their concerns, give them the proper information and then let them make a decision.

After months of lagging behind, in recent weeks the vaccination rates of Black and Hispanic people have nearly caught up to that of white people in the United States. Allen is hopeful that this trend will continue, and unvaccinated Cedar students will be receptive to information provided by healthcare workers who are also people of color. 

“We just want to make sure that people of color and everybody can have someone who looks like them that they can connect with, ask questions with and that will follow you,” Allen said. “I just don’t think that there are enough providers out there that will go into places and get into different pockets and talk and educate people about vaccine hesitancy.”

Misinformation is a major barrier to COVID-19 vaccination, according to Allen. She recommends seeking information from healthcare providers, the local Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and always making sure the research is up to date. 

Students who did not sign up at the information session must fill out a Google Form by Oct. 15 to create an appointment. A parental consent form is required for students under 18. 

The team is hopeful for a large turnout at next week’s drive, but according to Allen, “if we vaccinate one kid that’s a win for us.”

Violet Calkin

Senior Violet Calkin is Co-Editor-in-Chief for BluePrints Magazine. She plans to major in creative writing or journalism to become a professional writer or English professor. Calkin loves to read, be outside, and drink coffee at Jittery Joes. Her goals this year are to assist her peers in writing stories and ensure that they are enthusiastic about expanding coverage as a magazine staff. She appreciates the opportunity to unearth interesting topics and share them in a compelling way.