- The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation gave $1.7 million statewide to help communities promote and support COVID-19 vaccinations
- The foundation donated $547,740 to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts in Memphis
- The City of Memphis received $533,940 for its “Your Best Shot” campaign to promote vaccine awareness and acceptance
- Healing Word Counseling Center received $13,800 to purchase a vaccine freezer and support vaccination efforts serving at-risk populations
Reaching a million people is never easy. It’s even more difficult a year into a global pandemic.
But that’s what Shelby County, the largest county in Tennessee, and the City of Memphis are doing now to help fight COVID-19.
“Our goal is to get at least 500,000 people vaccinated by June,” says Allison Fouché, deputy chief communications officer for the City of Memphis. “We’re going to keep pushing until we exhaust ourselves. I won’t even say until we exhaust our funds — I’ll say until we exhaust ourselves.”
The city started making extensive outreach plans to promote the vaccine before they knew where the funds to execute those plans would come from. They had to, says Allison, because the need in Memphis is so great.
They also recognized that they would focus their efforts on communities of color, including African-Americans and Hispanics, who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and many of whom are hesitant to get the vaccine.
“Only 30% of Memphians have started the vaccination process, and our numbers for Hispanic and African-American populations are not trending like we want,” she says. “Memphis is 65% African-American, yet only about 30% of people coming to get vaccinated are African-Americans. The numbers are even lower for Hispanic populations — just 4%.”
After Allison saw those numbers, she was even more relieved when Memphis received a $533,940 grant from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation in March.
“It was just really, really divine,” she says. “We had already started creating all this stuff, but we didn’t know where the funding was going to come from to help us push it out to a greater audience. Together, we’re absolutely going to save lives.”
Setting up strategic vaccination sites
To put its plans in motion, the city started by identifying zip codes with the lowest vaccination rates:
- 38127 — Frayser and surrounding areas
- 38141, 38118 and 38115 — East/southeast of the airport, including Oakhaven, Olive Branch and Mount Moriah
“We did research to see where our gaps would be,” says Allison. “We knew one target would be African-American women, but our research also shows that African-American men aren’t getting vaccinated either. That’s one reason we’ve placed many of our public vaccination sites within a mile of large African-American populations.”
The City of Memphis currently operates five mass vaccination sites in Shelby County. The sites were chosen based on location, logistic accessibility and public transportation access. The populations living near the sites align with the city’s demographics:
- 63.5% African-American
- 32.5% White
- 4% Latinx
In addition, 12 Walmart and 13 Walgreens pharmacies, hospitals, and community clinics have partnered with the city to administer vaccinations, and others are coming online each day. The city is also hosting vaccination events at dozens of churches and community organizations.
“We know it’s important to host vaccination events in trusted community locations,” says Allison. “For example, there are so many undocumented Hispanic residents who are understandably fearful to come and fill a form out to get vaccinated. We’re trying to eliminate some of those barriers, and some of that distrust.”
Meeting needs in the Hispanic population
To remove those barriers, the city started by meeting with members of the Hispanic population, including community partners such as Socios Comunitarios, La Prensa Latina and Su Casa Family Ministries.
“We were saying, ‘Why are only 4% of people getting vaccinated? What can we do beyond advertising in Hispanic newspapers and radio announcements?’” says Allison.
“Our partners provided valuable insights. For example, we learned Latinx numbers may be so low because there’s not enough information in those communities for people to feel like they’re making an informed decision. Also, the trust is not there to establish a desire to get the vaccine. Having these conversations allowed us to start from a place of knowledge rather than assumption.”
Suggestions from Hispanic leaders included creating Spanish-language assets to encourage vaccinations, including:
- Online vaccination scheduling
- Signage for vaccination sites
- Taskforce briefings
- Disclaimers for intake forms so people know their information will not be shared
- Collateral for Socios Comunitarios to share with community partners
The city has already scheduled vaccination events at La Prensa and Su Casa, but they’re not stopping there.
“We’re doing an ad with the Mexican consulate for this area, and we’re working with a Hispanic theater company to create a video that shows people how to get vaccinated,” Allison says.
“We’re trying all kinds of ways beyond traditional advertising to reach every person in every community. And the BlueCross Foundation grant is instrumental in helping us do that within these different populations of Memphis.”
Setting up in the hardest-hit area
For another Memphis grant recipient, geographic targeting is also important, especially in the lesser-vaccinated zip codes, such as 38118. The area, located near the airport and bordering Mississippi, is 80% African-American and 14% Latinx.
“Our community was one of the hardest hit in Memphis when COVID arrived,” says Peter Hossler, clinic manager at Healing Word Counseling Center. The center offers free primary and behavioral health care and other services to uninsured residents of Shelby County. “These are front-line workers, and their work never got canceled. At one point, we had the highest positivity rate of any area of Memphis, and also the least access to testing.”
Over the past year, Healing Word has worked hard to change that. They started by setting up a testing site in May 2020, and they’ve now come full circle by offering the vaccine directly to their community. One reason they’ve been able to do that, Peter says, is because of the $13,800 grant they received from the BlueCross Foundation for medical-grade vaccine freezers and site support.
“The grant has been our lifeblood,” he says. “The BlueCross Foundation took a little bit of a leap of faith with us. We didn’t know for sure that we would get the vaccines. But we knew we wouldn’t get the vaccines without the proper equipment. It was a classic chicken-and-the-egg situation.”
Today, Healing Word is officially part of the city’s vaccination program, and it’s one of the only places residents can get a shot in the evening, and via drive-through.
“This makes such a difference for working people,” Peter says. “I’m proud to say we were able to do our first event with 100 doses on April 12. I can tell you the hesitancy to get the vaccine is real, especially among people of color. We’ve been able to overcome that through education and because we are a trusted entity serving this population. We wouldn’t be able to do this without the BlueCross Foundation.”
Pastor Dianne P. Young, Healing Word programs manager, says, “As our founding mission states, we are here to aid the spirit, soul and body of the underserved, primarily people of color. This grant allows us to fulfill our mission of meeting the needs of the whole person.”
Reaching people where they are
Other at-risk populations in Memphis include people experiencing homelessness, as well as those who are homebound. The city is utilizing the Healthcare Navigator Program so EMTs can go out and administer vaccines to those who can’t make it to a site.
“We’ve used some of the BlueCross Foundation grant money to support the ‘Our Best Shot’ mobile vaccination unit,” says Allison, “and we’ve partnered with FedEx to help service homebound residents, as well as people in shelters or those experiencing homelessness.”
During the pandemic, the Healthcare Navigator Program has been working up to 12 hours a day to meet the needs of its community.
Messaging in every medium
The City of Memphis is using every tool at its disposal to disseminate information, from TV and billboards to texting and targeted social media ads.
“We’re doing everything you would in a typical communications campaign, including radio, TV, print, digital ads — the whole gamut,” Allison says. “But we’re also employing traditional media like billboards to target African-American and Hispanic residents specifically.”
The 12 billboards placed strategically throughout the city are estimated to be seen by 3.3 million residents weekly.
TV and radio
Area doctors appear regularly on local TV and radio stations to express the importance of getting vaccinated.
The Memphis COVID-19 website is updated daily with vaccination statistics and locations. In March, it received 1.2 million visits.
The city partnered with Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW) for an email campaign, which went out to more than 100,000 MLGQ customers. And they worked with the Tri-State Defender, a local African-American publication, to reach their 50,000 subscribers via email.
Organizers reached out using social media channels as well, garnering 1.2 million views on Twitter, more than 640,000 on Facebook and nearly 7,000 on NextDoor in the first month. They also created an “Ask the Expert” series in which black female doctors talk about the vaccine and answer questions.
“We touched on topics our communities were curious about,” says Allison. “For example, ‘If I’m pregnant, should I get the vaccine?’ and ‘If I have allergies, what does that mean?’ It was great to be able to address questions directly, and in a way our partners can easily share.”
The city has also sent a series of text messages to Shelby County residents 65+, 55+, 45+, 18+ and now 16+. The campaign has sent more than 893,000 texts.
“Most people have a mobile phone, and while they may not want to get a call from someone, when they get a text, they’re going to wonder: ‘Who was just texting me?’” Allison says. “That’s helpful when we’re trying to reach younger Memphians, especially now that vaccinations are open to anyone over 16.”
What’s next for Memphis?
As the city sees how their efforts unfold, they’ll innovate. But they’re not waiting on all the results to start the next step of the process.
“I was just on a call with some folks from Memphis hospitals and colleges, and we’re trying to figure out how to get our community health workers out talking to people, kind of like a street team,” says Allison. “We’ve tried to hit every corner we can, and I don’t know where that will take us next. What I do know is we’re not letting up.”
Find comprehensive information about vaccination in Memphis at covid19.memphistn.gov