Dr. Michael Eriksen is the principal director of the Prevention Research Center at Georgia State University. Dr. Mary Helen O’Connor is a co-investigator and co-director for community engagement in the Prevention Research Center and director of the Center for Community Engagement at Perimeter College.
The COVID-19 pandemic is resurgent, and how bad it will get will be determined by how quickly we can increase protection through vaccination, masking, and testing. An example of a community that is going in the right direction is Clarkston, Georgia, one of the largest refugee resettlement communities in the country, and home to residents from more than 40 countries who speak more than 60 languages. With a fully vaccinated rate of nearly 42%, Clarkston is outpacing neighboring communities that are similarly stressed, with low household income, low literacy and language ability, high density housing, and limited transportation.
Community stress can be measured by the Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) developed by the CDC. On a scale from 0 to 1, with 1 indicating higher vulnerability, Clarkston’s score of 0.92 demonstrates the high impact of the socioeconomic, minority, and English language status of its residents. But even considering these stresses, Clarkston has a higher vaccination rate than expected based on its SVI. Its first-dose vaccination rate is 15% higher, and its fully vaccinated rate is 13% higher than communities in the same area with comparable Social Vulnerability Indices.
The reasons for these gains are no secret.
First, in early 2020, a community coalition was formed among community organizations, healthcare providers, local government, academics, and residents – the Clarkston Community COVID Task Force. The group met weekly to share information about testing, mitigation efforts, and vaccination. Led by Dr. Andrew Kim of Ethne Health, a clinic serving the Clarkston community, the task force distributed more than 20,000 personal protective equipment kits with masks, hand sanitizer, and COVID health information door-to-door in the community.
Second, Ethne Clinic also became one of the first community providers to administer vaccine.
“We knew that it was crucial to bring vaccines directly into our community, and so we became one of the first sites in Georgia to offer the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines – ensuring our patients would have access as soon as they were available,” said Dr. Kim. “Since early January to the present, we have given almost 7,000 injections in Clarkston and continue to give vaccines three times a week. We have vaccinated people representing 30 different languages and over 30 different ethnicities.”
Third, through unique mobile vaccine sites provided by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Atlanta and Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE), the community has received special efforts including on-site interpreters, pop-up sites in apartment complexes and places of worship, and food distribution events to increase the number of vaccinated Clarkston residents.
Led by the IRC’s Dr. Omar Aziz, who is originally from Iraq, this team provided more than 16,000 free COVID tests throughout 2020 and over 7,800 vaccine doses since April of this year.
“What has been so effective for us is ensuring that those staffing the vaccination sites reflect the community itself, so the services are linguistically and culturally competent,” said Dr. Aziz. “My team speaks 20 languages and many of them have been Clarkston residents for quite some time. This level of trust has allowed us to reach community members that the traditional medical community may not reach as effectively.”
The Prevention Research Center at Georgia State University has partnered with community organizations in Clarkston during the pandemic, providing data analysis, messaging, and translation. In May 2021, the PRC was awarded a $500,000 grant from the CDC to focus specifically on vaccine confidence in Clarkston. This new award will allow us to hire six COVID-19 Community Ambassadors, members of the Clarkston community to continue the efforts to promote vaccine uptake among residents via listening sessions, peer outreach, and targeted campaigns. Our goal is to increase the number of vaccinated Clarkston residents by 50% by May 2022.
The special attention focused on Clarkston demonstrates how community members can improve the health and safety of disadvantaged and underserved communities. Barriers to vaccination can be overcome by engaging with a community’s problems and creating trust. Though there is still a considerable job to do in Clarkston and other vulnerable communities, all can benefit from local collaborations and targeted approaches for addressing this global crisis.
The Prevention Research Center at Georgia State, headquartered on the Clarkston Campus at Perimeter College, works with community organizations, state and local government, residents, and other partners in Clarkston, Ga., to develop, implement, and evaluate culturally and linguistically appropriate interventions to address the disparities and determinants of health for migrants and refugees and to disseminate this work at the community, state, and national levels. Learn more at prc.gsu.edu.
Dr. Michael Eriksen
School of Public Health
A Regents’ Professor of Health Management and Policy and the founding dean of the School of Public Health, Dr. Michael Eriksen led Georgia State’s public health program from 2002 – 2019. He is a leading authority on tobacco prevention and control and led one of 14 Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Mary Helen O’Connor
Dr. Mary Helen O’Connor’s teaching and research in migration studies, education, and rhetoric and composition explores refugee education, agency and identity. For more than a decade, Dr. O’Connor has been a volunteer and advocate for refugees and immigrants in Clarkston, Ga. She serves on the Clarkston Community COVID Task Force in partnership with city government and health and social service providers in the community.