When COVID-19 vaccines became available, older adults and those with high-risk health conditions were among the first to be eligible. Many of our patients fit into these categories. Additionally, almost all of our patients work in service sector jobs: preparing food, cleaning homes, or caring for children and elderly adults. Given these factors, Arlington Free Clinic knew that promoting vaccine access and educating our patients would be critical components of our work in the year ahead.
As Arlington County’s vaccination efforts got underway, most vaccine appointments required online registration. This was fine for highly educated, tech savvy residents, but nearly impossible for those without a computer, smartphone, or internet – or those whose schedules didn’t allow for hours spent refreshing websites and waiting for slots to open.
Our patients lost family members and friends to COVID-19; many got sick themselves. If they were lucky enough to keep their jobs, they struggled to balance work while supporting children through months of remote learning. After an incredibly tough year, many were very eager for the chance to get the vaccine. But, in spite of their eagerness, the logistics of getting vaccinated were overwhelming.
Arlington Free Clinic partnered with Arlington County to become a vaccination site beginning in February of 2021. We quickly got to work setting up a vaccine clinic model designed to make vaccinations as easy as possible for our patients. We brought back scores of volunteers who we hadn’t seen inside our walls for nearly a year – and quickly onboarded an additional 40 to meet the immediate need for Spanish interpreters. Our volunteers made hundreds of calls to patients to schedule appointments and complete all their paperwork over the phone, bypassing the computer completely. We offered vaccine clinics at times that were compatible with our patients’ work schedules since their jobs generally don’t allow for time off. This massive push yielded over 3,000 doses!
We then turned our focus to those who, for various reasons, were not yet ready to accept the vaccine. Nurses identified their high-risk patients with chronic diseases, cancer diagnoses, or on immunosuppressive therapies and called them multiple times to educate and encourage them to get the vaccine. Our nurse practitioner made vaccine education a priority, and nurses reminded our volunteer providers to discuss vaccination status and education at every appointment. Our staff modeled best practices by using appropriate PPE and getting vaccinated as well. Staff participated in multilingual video testimonials about getting vaccinated that we created and shared with patients.
AFC remains very committed to this important effort, so we will continue to implement vaccine recommendations as they evolve. Our providers, volunteers, and nurses continue to query patients about their vaccination status during appointments and we are contacting patients for whom a third shot is recommended. AFC understands that ensuring the health of our population involves more than just recommending appropriate interventions. Understanding the obstacles to care and working to remove them remain core components of the work we do every day.
Joan Bowes Ritter, MD Medical Director