Woman helps register, drive nearly 100 people in rural Miss. to COVID-19 vaccine appointments

Getting COVID-19 vaccines to rural communities

SARDIS, Miss. (WMC) - One thing about living in a small town, is news travels fast.

Retired educator Vernetta Price gained the reputation in Sardis, Mississippi as the woman who could get you things, specifically a vaccine.

Early on in the vaccination sign-ups, the online process for making appointments was confusing for many older people in her community.

“I did one of the seniors at church and my husband said why don’t you try to help some of the other church members and I said you know that’s a good idea,” said Price.

It started back in January with the inoculation of a 75-year-old woman from her church and it continued to grow.

She’s now helped to sign up and drive nearly 100 people in her community to get a vaccine. In some instances, she would even drive people to get their vaccine as far away as Lafayette County.

“So I started and the word passed around,” said Price. “The people call me now and I don’t even know them and I said who are you? Who told you about me? And I signed them up.”

Price is playing a big role in the vaccination process in Panola County.

About 24% of this rural community has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, 16% are fully vaccinated.

That’s close but still below the average in the State of Mississippi at 26% for the first dose,17% fully vaccinated.

The Mississippi Director of Health Equity, Chigozie Ugembgda knows much more can be done.

“So what we’re looking to do is to start an initiative that allows us to bring vaccinations to these respective communities, rural communities so that the access is in the communities that people trust,” said Ugembgda.

Mississippi has created something called COVID-19 Centers for Excellence -- health systems willing to partner with the health department to provide the COVID-19 vaccines and specialized treatment for COVID-positive patients.

“It’s going really good, really, proud of our staff,” said Panola Medical Center Chief Operating Officer Chris Ware.

Panola Medical Center is one of over 40 facilities across the state that joined the partnership.

Ware says since December their facility averages administering about 400 to 500 vaccinations per week of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, but these partnerships are not in every rural community.

Like Panola County’s neighbor Tate County, which has only one COVID-19 vaccination provider, access is an issue in some rural communities and so is interest in taking the vaccine.

“So in December our list, we had a long waiting list, people were calling us 24/7 trying to get on the list. So there is still a need but it’s not as on fire as it was,” said Ware.

Mississippi was one of the first states to open vaccinations to anyone over the age of 16.

Price has changed her focus from getting seniors vaccine appointments to the younger population who have shown a lower interest in the vaccination process.

We met Price while she was driving to take her 16-year-old grandson Michael Cage and 26-year-old Verneka Watson to get the vaccine.

Price says signing up for an appointment is no longer the biggest hindrance.

“Just the scary stories that you would hear from people who had bad experiences, you know all the negative talk about it, but everything went fine,” said Watson.

Price says she never imagined this is how she would spend her first year in retirement, but then again she never expected a global pandemic would reach her small town.

“I always asked the Lord, what is my spiritual gift? And my spiritual gift is to help others so I feel like that’s what I’m doing, helping others,” said Price. “Am I going to stop? Nooooo. I’m going to continue.”

The Mississippi State Department of Health and the State Office of Health Equity is looking to partner with a variety of community organizations to help in the fight against COVID-19.

They are looking for churches, community organizations, businesses, even municipalities to help identify those who need vaccinations.

For more information call the Mississippi COVID-19 Hotline at 1-877-978-6453, if you would like to host a vaccination event in a minority or rural community.

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