Lamon Lewis places a flyer with vaccine information on a home near downtown Kansas City, Kansas, on May 21, 2021. Photo by Chase Castor/The Beacon

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Lamon Lewis, 40, of Kansas City, Kansas, wasn’t sure at first that he wanted to get vaccinated because he was afraid of potential side effects. 

But when Lewis, who identifies as African American, saw the percentage of Americans with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine climb to 60%, he began to change his mind. 

Ultimately, a mobile vaccination clinic visiting his apartment complex, Douglas Heights, was what sealed the deal, he said.

“How often do you see someone come to you to give you something?,” Lewis said. “You see the bus that comes with library books, but that’s it. Not with a shot that matters and can ultimately save your life.”

Lewis is one of Wyandotte County’s success stories when it comes to vaccinating vulnerable populations. Through working with community partners and on-the-ground efforts, Wyandotte County’s rate of vaccination for people who identify as Hispanic —  26.8% —  is greater than for people who identify as non-Hispanic —  24.8%.

That’s notable in a community where, according to the 2019 Census data, nearly 30% of Wyandotte County residents identify as Hispanic.

“The single most important factor for success has been the creation of a task force that is representative of all the sectors of the community,” said Manuel Solano, program director of the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County. “The health department has been very wise to collaborate and work with the community.”

Early on in the pandemic, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, Public Health Department set up a Health Equity Task Force that included local businesses, churches and community groups like Juntos and the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County.

The task force worked on issues like outreach, testing, contact tracing and establishing pop-up testing sites at community locations at a time when COVID-19 testing was less accessible to Black and Latinx people.

Glenn Eastwood and Timothy Pittman chat with Mayra Romero-Ferman while she canvasses a neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, to get the word out about the COVID-19 vaccine on May 21, 2021. Chase Castor/The Beacon

Most recently, the CHC of Wyandotte County started canvassing neighborhoods with high concentrations of Latinos to sign residents up for vaccines.

“In the beginning, we noticed that Latinos were not receiving the vaccination at the same rate as other minorities, so we promoted that and it looks like it’s working,” Solano said.

CHC of Wyandotte County contacts Latino-owned businesses, like Tapatio Mexican Grill, Paleterias Tropicana or supermarkets, and asks about whether their employees are vaccinated and if they’re hesitant about getting the vaccine. CHC then coordinates a day and time with business owners and the health department when employees can get vaccinated.

The canvassing efforts have all been face-to-face and word-of-mouth, Solano said.

Vaccinating people for COVID-19 where they live

After getting vaccinated, Lewis started working as a canvasser in Wyandotte County.

“I figured that it’s a good job to be able to spread the news, get them (residents) information, let them know where they need to go and what they need to do to get vaccinated,” Lewis said.

He said people he talks with are appreciative of the information and thankful to get it without having to go anywhere else.

“If they weren’t thinking about it, they’re going to start thinking about it just because you opened up the door of where they can go, what they need to do,” he said.

Lewis hands out a flyer with the information on it, as well as answers their questions. It makes a difference to be a resident of the area that he canvasses in, Lewis said.

“When they look out, they don’t just see anybody handing out a flyer, they see someone they’ve seen before, maybe in passing,” Lewis said.

He said many people are curious about his personal experience with the vaccine, especially about what side effects he experienced. He shares that despite his earlier fears, his side effects were mild. 

Continued efforts like canvassing and mobile vaccination sites are crucial in getting people vaccinated, Lewis said, especially for those who are teetering back and forth on the decision.

Collecting best practices to serve the community

CHC of Wyandotte County’s current work builds off of the services it offered throughout the pandemic.

Solano said he’s spent the pandemic learning from others about how to serve the community.

“This particular crisis gave us an opportunity to learn and especially to evaluate best practices and copy from somebody else,” he said. “I learned canvassing from some other site and copied them. I was always looking for best practices.”

CHC of Wyandotte County’s current work on promoting vaccination is only the latest in a series of programs it has been a part of during the pandemic.

Some of its other programs include providing food delivery for people who were quarantined and helping people with rental assistance, paying for medications or keeping doctor appointments. If CHC of Wyandotte County doesn’t have the funds, it connects people with other community organizations that can help, Solano said.

Mayra Romero-Ferman writes down vaccine information for a Kansas City, Kansas, resident on May 21, 2021. Lamon Lewis waits beside her — it’s his first day out canvassing neighborhoods with vaccine information with the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County. Chase Castor/The Beacon

CHC of Wyandotte County has also  provided Spanish, Burmese and Nepalese interpreters for events about testing and vaccines.

Recently, it also collaborated with Harvesters, Frontline and United Healthcare to provide food boxes at weekend vaccination events and testing sites to help incentivize vaccinations.

Solano said the lessons he’s learned during the pandemic will continue to be used to address community health in the future.

“If the pandemic did something for us, it was to reveal and make clear to us all of the inequities and inequalities in services provided to different communities within Wyandotte, and within the whole country,” he said. 

“Those inequities are evident now, we cannot hide them, we have to address them. And the way to address them are probably the best practices we are using right now.”

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Brittany Callan covered health and environment at The Beacon, and was a Report for America corps member for 2020-2021. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.