The Finger Lakes Performing Provider System is spearheading an urgent move to boost vaccination rates among high-need minority groups in the region and poor communities in rural Upstate New York. The agency recently was awarded a $1 million grant to take action.
The grant will mobilize community health workers, patient navigators, and social support specialists to educate and assist people with access to COVID-19 vaccines. Roughly 12 full-time community health navigators and outreach workers will be hired to deploy the project.
The funding was made available by the American Rescue Plan and is being distributed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through the Health Resources and Services Administration. FLPPS is tasked with administering the grant.
Established in 2014 to improve the health care delivery for the Medicaid population, FLPPS is a network of health and human services providers across Allegany, Cayuga, Chemung, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates counties.
On the vaccine project, FLPPS will partner with Human Service Development, Ibero-American Action League, MC Collaborative, Father Tracy Advocacy Center, Ardent Solutions, Western NY Coalition of Farmworker Serving Agencies and S2AY Rural Health Network. Along with Common Ground Health, FLPPS will oversee program delivery, working with regional vaccine hubs in its 13-county region.
“The community health navigators/outreach workers who will be chosen for this project are members of the community in which they will do outreach,” says Carol Tegas, executive director of FLPPS. “They are part of the target population and have outgoing and likeable personalities that enable them to quickly and easily establish rapport and engage with their neighbors and friends in a trusting manner.”
In addition to culturally responsive outreach and education efforts, these workers plan to go to various locations including street festivals, laundromats, churches and bus stops. They will also go to college campuses, areas where the homeless spend time and walk the streets of the inner city.
Tegas believes both access and vaccine hesitancy concerns need to be addressed. She points to Common Ground Health’s Vaccine Hesitancy and Access Survey a few months ago, which found that those who were hesitant to get the vaccine or said they would not get the shot believe it can or will cause harm with long-term side effects, or that it would hurt minorities.
“Some individuals believe that the vaccine development process was too rushed, and that interactions with various medical conditions or prescriptions is not yet fully known and may be unsafe,” Tegas says. “They question the emergency use authorization versus the full FDA approval.”
In addition, the populations targeted by this grant don’t have easy access to transportation, face language barriers and do not have broadband services.
“Consistency and trust are key for increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates in the Latinx community. Community mobilization requires time, resources and commitment,” says Angelica Perez-Delgado, president and CEO of Ibero-American Action League. “Cultural mistrust of government and health care institutions along with misinformation continue to be our greatest challenges.”
This grant, she says, allows for longer-term strategies and for trusted community organizations like Ibero to secure the resources needed to reduce the inequities of the pandemic, particularly in underserved communities.
Tegas acknowledges the work done so far to boost vaccinations in the region. However, she says more can and needs to be done. Rural populations, for example, are difficult to serve because of a lack of transportation and open spaces.
“Even getting messages to the population is more difficult as large pockets of the rural areas lack cell phone coverage and, in some counties, more than 25 percent of the population lacks access to broadband services,” Tegas says. “While the urban areas have better cellular and broadband coverage, persons in poverty in general are subject to the ‘digital divide’ that COVID has really called attention to as it became increasingly apparent (in the educational community especially during virtual learning) that students from low-income communities lacked access to technological resources prevalent in more affluent communities.”
These challenges are not limited to the Finger Lakes region. An NPR/PBS NewHour/Marist survey in March found that even if a vaccine was made available, 30 percent of respondents did not plan on getting a shot in the arm.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.