In the courtyard of a tidy, no-frills apartment complex in Pleasant Grove, a line forms along a sidewalk. Tents, coolers, and fans are set up in the shaded grassy area, and markers on the sidewalk show residents where to stand as they wait. The September afternoon is warm with no sign of cooling down, but the line slowly grows.
The event is one in a series of vaccination initiatives from Catalyst Health Network via the Catalyst Health Foundation, Project Unity, and several other organizations are working together to bring vaccinations to hard-to-reach and underserved populations in southern Dallas. The partnership began in 2020 by providing COVID-19 tests in these neighborhoods and has now pivoted to vaccines. This day’s event is in partnership with Dallas ISD, which has an elementary school across the street. “We’re meeting people where they are,” says Charlene Edwards, the director of programs and events for Project Unity. “What we try to do is partner with organizations that can help us get in front of people and make it convenient for people.”
Started in response to the downtown Dallas shooting in July 2016, Project Unity is a faith-led nonprofit focused on community development. They provide the logistics for the event, develop relationships with apartment complexes and restaurants like Williams Chicken, and Catalyst provides the vaccines and healthcare workers to administer the shots.
Black and Hispanic residents are less likely to be vaccinated than their White counterparts, and ZIP codes in southern Dallas are more vulnerable than those in other areas of town. While some areas of Dallas have more than 90 percent vaccination rates, others are closer to 25 percent. Part of the lack of vaccination is hesitancy or distrust of the medical system; the low vaccination rates are also due to a lack of access, language barriers, and a lack of knowledge about the virus and vaccine. These events, hosted by churches, residences, and restaurants that have the trust of their communities, hope to maximize results.
The events are almost entirely advertised by word of mouth and attract plenty of walk-up vaccinations. There are no CVS, Walgreens, or grocery store pharmacies in many of these neighborhoods, so these locations provide a service that can’t be found nearby.
“It’s not as easy as scheduling an appointment online, rolling up to a CVS, and sticking around to get a shot and drive off,” says Dr. Chris Crow, CEO of Catalyst Health Network. “That’s not how it works here. Some people can’t read, some only have bikes, and others don’t speak English, but it’s equally important for them to get vaccines just like you and me. It’s a different process and a different type of conversation, which is why we’re doing mobile sites. It’s a little more relational than it is transactional. It’s not quite door to door, but pretty close to it.”
The groups are mainly offering Pfizer vaccines because they are available for children 12 and up, but also provide Johnson and Johnson because it is more convenient for those who lack transportation. Those who receive Pfizer are encouraged to come to a different event later in the year when it is time to get their shot.
With so much walk-up traffic, the events also serve as a persuasive tool to attract neighbors to vaccination, who are often hesitant about the treatment. “We’ve had people to come to us and say, ‘I hear the vaccine is killing people. Am I going to die?'” Edwards says. “That’s where we take time to educate people. It’s that lived experience as a mother, as a sister, and as a wife, to be able to help people understand the importance of getting vaccinated.”
The effort is desperately needed in these neighborhoods. Still, these vaccination events are also part of Crow and the Catalyst Health Foundation’s larger vision of bringing primary care options to these neighborhoods. With the proliferation of telehealth, it may be easier for often uninsured residents in healthcare deserts to get access to the care that will keep them out of the hospital and reduce costs to the system. Events like these help build trust and relationships in the communities that need better healthcare. Eventually, Catalyst hopes to be a part of launching that effort. “Vaccine need may be what helps us launch and continue to have connectivity in the community,” Crow says.
The collaboration is looking to continue their work as the delta variant creates a deadly fourth wave of the virus in North Texas. “We thought we would have been done by now,” Edwards says. “Unfortunately, we’re not, so we are now planning for boosters.”