VOICES: Stacey Abrams sets her sights on vaccine access in rural Georgia
In 2020, Stacey Abrams and organizers across Georgia were successful in turning the state blue and, arguably, saving lives by denying Donald Trump and his accomplices four more years.
Now they have set their sights on an even more concrete life-saving effort — transforming the state's woeful COVID-19 vaccination record, currently worst in the nation with only 15.7% of its adult population receiving at least one dose.
Last week, Abrams launched the "Count Me In" initiative to help hard-to-reach Georgians get vaccinated, with a particular focus on Black, Latinx, and Native communities. Utilizing the existing field infrastructure of the Abrams-founded nonprofit Fair Count, which recently mobilized U.S. Census and election participation, the initiative will engage in phone banking, texting, canvassing, literature drops, and other organizing methods aimed at getting shots in arms.
The first two weeks of work will see field organizers calling and texting 35,000 residents of Southwest Georgia, once ground zero for the pandemic, and an area that Abrams said "not only lags behind in access to public health and public benefits, [but] economically and on every major metric."
"If we do the best job we can in Southwest Georgia, we can set a precedent for how we serve the nation," Abrams said.
While the state did set up a mass vaccination center in Albany, Abrams said it has sent thousands of doses earmarked for that location to Atlanta, and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp also encouraged Atlantans to drive to the area for appointments. Moreover, while more than 75% of COVID deaths in Albany have been among Black people, they are being vaccinated half as often as white people in the area.
A narrative has emerged that this gap is attributable to "vaccine hesitancy" within the Black community. Abrams pushed back vehemently against that notion.
"It is not a question of hesitancy, it is a question of access," Abrams said. She pointed to a lack of transportation, lack of access to information, and barriers to technology and said that the state is simply "failing at its job."
"One of the most fundamental constructs of public health is that you go to where the people are, instead of leaving it to the people to find their way," Abrams said. "We have a lack of intentionality on the part of the state to reach these communities."
Pastor Joshua Nelson, who serves two churches in southwest Georgia, agrees. He said there has been a "drastic shift" among his congregants since President Biden took office. "I think that when you cannot trust your president — you don't know exactly what's being done, or things are being used for political reasons, [or] rushed — you're not sure what to trust. There aren't those trust issues with this administration."
Nelson's observation tracks with a recent poll showing that 61% of Black Americans plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine or have already received one, up sharply from 42% in November. Nelson pointed to a recent effort led by the 20-member Albany Coalition of Churches to host a vaccine clinic. He said that when the churches banded together to reach out to people and provide them with the needed information the people turned out.
Indeed, the Southern Economic Advancement Project, where Abrams serves as executive director, and Propel, maker of the Fresh EBT app that helps users manage their public assistance benefits, recently surveyed residents in Southwest Georgia who are low-income and food insecure about the vaccination effort. Respondents offered suggestions for improving vaccine access, including offering home visits, putting vaccination sites in high-poverty areas, bringing a mobile vaccination bus to the community, and sending a letter with vaccination locations and eligibility. Among respondents who wanted a vaccine, 1 in 3 didn't know if they were eligible, and 1 in 4 didn't know where the sites are located. Moreover, 1 in 10 reported transportation barriers and 1 in 6 didn't know how to register for an appointment or couldn't find times that work for them.
According to Dr. Douglas Patten, associate dean of the Southwest Campus Medical College at Augusta University, the time factor particularly affects low-income Black and Latinx workers in the state's agricultural and service industries. "They can't afford to take off half a day to go someplace and get their vaccine," he said. "We've got to bring the vaccine to them, make it easy." He noted that Albany Area Primary Health Care (which he serves as a board member) had great success when they called their patients and arranged transportation for the vaccine: "They had three to four times as many African Americans successfully vaccinated than they did whites, because that's our patient population."
Despite the many barriers to access, Nelson is optimistic about how the Count Me In initiative can have a transformative impact on vaccination access, much as get-out-the-vote efforts helped people access their ballot in 2020.
"We built an infrastructure," he said. "We have canvassers and organizers who are ready to go. We saw a huge difference when we engaged and organized communities in terms of the [election] turnout in Southwest Georgia. The same can be done with accessing the vaccine."
While Abrams says the effort is critical in terms of getting people in the state vaccinated, she also sees broader implications.
"We have a responsibility not only to recover from this pandemic, but to use this as a learning opportunity for how we serve the most marginalized and disadvantaged in Georgia," she said.
(The Southern Economic Advancement Project financially supported this reporting.)
Greg Kaufmann is a contributing writer for The Nation and an advisor to the Southern Economic Advancement Project's SouthStrong coalition.