This student-authored post is published by CPR in partnership with Medill News Service and the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views, policies, or positions of CPR or CDC.
The sound of live music and the smell of fried food filled the air on a warm July evening in Moline, Illinois’ Hispanic Floreciente neighborhood. Peggy Newkirk, 73, a retired nurse practitioner, stands behind a folding table in the shade with other volunteers.
Most people crowd to Mercado on Fifth—a weekly open-air cultural fest and market—in the summer to shop, eat, and dance. But Newkirk and her fellow volunteers were there with other plans—to distribute COVID-19 vaccines. “We make it as convenient as possible so that if somebody is even considering it, you’re right there before they have a chance to change their mind,” Newkirk said.
“Pop Ups” Put Shots in Arms
The Rock Island County Health Department has held pop-up vaccine clinics at Mercado on Fifth and at community gathering places in other minority neighborhoods across Rock Island and Moline. The health department also held clinics at the Islamic Center of Quad Cities in Moline and the Second Baptist Church in Rock Island.
About 42% of the population of Rock Island County was fully vaccinated as of August 31, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.(1) About 52% of people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated.(2)
Nationally, vaccination rates are lower on average among people from racial and ethnic minority groups, according to CDC.(3) The goal of the pop-up vaccine clinics in Rock Island County is to reach disproportionately affected communities and remove barriers to vaccination access.
The clinics were run by health department staff and Rock Island County Medical Reserve Corps volunteers. Most volunteers are retired healthcare workers like Newkirk. They’re trained to fill the gap of first responder and medical staff shortages in emergencies.
“We’re just trying to reach anyone and everyone we can,” said Kate Meyer, manager of emergency planning and response for the health department. “And we couldn’t have done all of our response without the Medical Reserve Corps.”
“Like Giving People Hope.”
Deborah Freiburg, 70, is another Medical Reserve Corps member. She retired in Rock Island after 40 years as a nurse at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “Going from working such a heavy job and just all of a sudden retiring, you can’t just sit at home,” she said.
When Freiburg’s planned trip to the Galapagos fell through due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she called the health department and offered to help, first as a contract tracer, then later at the vaccine clinics.
Things were hectic at first. Freiburg remembers standing for six hours at a time in an ice-covered parking lot outside the Tax Slayer Center, the site of Rock Island County’s first mass vaccination clinics. Her job was to monitor vaccine recipients for adverse reactions.
People poured into the clinics. They came by car, bus, and on foot. The health department partnered with public transit company that serves Rock Island and Moline, to provide free bus rides to vaccine appointments. Once dropped off at a clinic parking lot, volunteers would pick up people with mobility issues in golf carts. Peggy Newkirk remembers a family of three generations that came together to get their vaccines.
One man told Freiburg he had waited in his car overnight for his shot. “It was the most exciting thing,” Freiburg said. “Because, you know, it was like giving hope to people. No matter how cold it was outside, or how long you were on your feet, everybody was just excited to be part of this part of history.”
Volunteers and staff were giving out 800 or more vaccine doses each day earlier this year, but the numbers have dropped. Still, regular clinics are set to continue indefinitely.
Hurdles of Hearts and Minds
Many factors influence vaccine decision-making, including cultural, social, and political factors; individual and group factors; and vaccine-specific factors.(3) Newkirk said some of her family members won’t get the shot, despite her best efforts to build COVID-19 vaccine confidence.
Newkirk is undeterred. Confidence in the vaccines leads to more people getting vaccinated, which leads to fewer COVID-19 illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths. “Everybody wants to get society back to normal and the best way to do that is to get the people who aren’t vaccinated, vaccinated,” she said.
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