Weary of the coronavirus and its inconveniences, many Kansans are completely soured on hearing yet again about the need to get vaccinated or tested for COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean they’re unreachable. The experiences of a handful of organizers over the past year show how everyday people with the right set of skills can connect within their own communities to advance healthy outcomes.
On a chilly mid-December afternoon in the parking lots near a northeast Wichita church, the proponents of a push to address a historic public health crisis arrived to press their cause dressed as three elves and a candy cane.
The costumes lent levity to activities with a serious purpose. Wichitans Donnis McPhaul (the lone candy cane), Debra Boyd, Ford Carr and Robbie Ray wanted to not just spread holiday cheer but also move the needle on lagging vaccination rates in the African American and Latino communities.
The occasion? An annual toy giveaway that tends to serve primarily families of color.
Hundreds of families received toys and items such as hats, gloves and scarves that day. But some accepted something more – a vaccination against the coronavirus. The 48 individuals who got shots that day – 12 of them children ages 5 to 11 – represent just a tiny fraction of the nearly 4.5 million doses of vaccine that have been administered across Kansas as of July 2022.
But countless others received information about the importance of getting the vaccine; some even said they’d follow up but just weren’t prepared that day to be vaccinated. Testing was done on-site and at-home test kits were also distributed.
More than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic first upended life in the United States, the public’s enthusiasm for collective measures to reduce the spread and impact of the disease appears exhausted. But the under-the-radar approach on display late last year near Tabernacle Bible Church might be a preview of the future of advancing public health one carload at a time.
“Being a champion of vaccination myself and knowing the numbers were down in the African American community” has been the key motivation behind the group’s push, Ray says. Their efforts – brought together in part by family ties (Ray is a cousin to McPhaul and Carr, who are siblings) and often bolstered by a personal touch – have hardly been small in scale.
All told, they organized more than 50 events as part of a public health project created by the Kansas Leadership Center and the state Department of Health and Environment. The toy drive vaccination clinic – done in conjunction with the Us Doing Us nonprofit that Carr founded and the Sedgwick County Health Department – was the final event of an initiative called Kansas Beats the Virus.
(The Kansas Leadership Center, which oversaw Kansas Beats the Virus, is the publisher of The Journal, although this story was produced independently of other parts of the organization.)
Filling the gap
The late 2021 incarnation of the campaign (a similar, inaugural project was launched at the end of 2020 and again in early 2021) focused heavily on addressing health equity issues. It primarily served communities of color in Kansas’ more urban counties by encouraging local groups to provide COVID-19 information and make testing and vaccines more available in the community. In all, the effort distributed 949 grants totaling nearly $1.4 million, which resulted in locally driven projects that reached an estimated 1.35 million Kansans. Much of the funding for the grants came from federal pandemic relief aid.
The bulk of the activity in 2021, about 75%, took place in Sedgwick and Shawnee counties, which hosted 420 and 337 projects, respectively. Wyandotte and Douglas counties posted the next highest numbers with 81 and 68 projects, respectively.
Perhaps most important, the people in charge of the projects looked like the communities they were trying to serve. More than half of the project leaders identified as people of color, particularly Black people. Many of those leaders already had built reputations as trusted individuals within their communities.
Reputational and community standing are major factors in effecting change, according to Adrienne Byrne, director of Sedgwick County’s health department, and Elizabeth Ablah, a professor with the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita who has been involved in a number of research projects related to achieving healthier populations.
“We haven’t had the resources as far as staff to be out in the community, and you don’t want to try and build trust on the fly in a pandemic,” Byrne says. “You want to have that trust already established. So having been able to work with people that know their community, that looked like them, that have connections, is really, really important.”
Budget cuts by the Sedgwick County Commission – back when public health issues didn’t seem so dire – eliminated some of the county’s public health positions and outreach programs that had served community segments that were the most underserved. The pandemic brought an infusion of federal money that is allowing Byrne to rebuild her staff.
Those cuts “created a bit of a void for us. Now we do have a health educator, and we’re slowly building some of it back. But not having had those people out in the community definitely has been a struggle,” Byrne says.
In the meantime, project leaders such as Ray, McPhaul and Carr helped fill that gap, sharing information and lifting vaccination rates.
Another individual who was often called upon to help out was Dr. Maurice Duggins, a family medicine specialist and residency faculty member with Ascension Via Christi in Wichita. Duggins, who is Black, participated in several panel discussions and visited with community groups. Lending his expertise and voice was twofold:
“To help the community see that people like them are recommending the vaccine and have taken the vaccine,” he says, and to clear up misinformation, which contributed to vaccine reluctance.
All those efforts come in the context of a pandemic that disproportionately affected people of color, particularly early on. Those divides along lines of race and ethnicity have since narrowed in Kansas and across the country as the brunt of the pandemic has shifted to rural areas. But concerns about racial disparities remain a part of the broader conversation about health in the U.S.
Did the 681 locally driven projects serving the Black community and the 569 projects serving the Hispanic community make a difference? It’s tough to make that call from the public health data alone. The fully vaccinated rate for Black people still trails the rate for white Kansans, and non-Hispanics still had higher vaccination rates than Latino Kansans as of the middle of March.
Even in Sedgwick County, where projects occurred most frequently, Black people account for just 6% of the first doses given through mid-March despite accounting for 9% of the population, according to the health department. Nationally, Black people accounted for 10% of first doses and 13% of the population, a similar ratio.
But the three highly diverse counties that hosted the most action projects – Sedgwick, Wyandotte and Shawnee – all ranked in the top 25% of counties with the lowest risks for COVID-19, according to the Kansas Leadership Center’s Third Floor Research. Those rankings significantly outperform where they might be expected to be based on their 2021 county health rankings.
Survey data compiled by Third Floor Research also suggests that the program was effective at empowering its participants to make a difference in their communities. About 95% of the participants surveyed agreed that their experiences helped them realize they could make a difference by being involved in community issues.
With a lack of civic trust frequently undercutting efforts to rein in the pandemic, the efforts of people such as McPhaul, Carr and Ray loom larger. Their experiences suggest that communities have resources for advancing public health in the form of individuals whose authority and credibility in interacting with their own communities too often go unrecognized.
It’s not necessarily a novel idea, but perhaps one that’s worth carrying forward in a variety of situations. RADx, a program from the National Institutes of Health that is part of a $1.4 billion national effort and short for radical acceleration of diagnostics, has been operating in Kansas with a goal of helping mobilize communities mostly around testing rather than vaccines. The idea behind RADx was to bring researchers and the leaders of the communities most affected by COVID-19 together to fight the pandemic. Both Ablah and Byrne have been part of those efforts.
‘You have to bring it to the people’
For McPhaul, Carr and Ray, getting involved in helping others is something that’s part of their makeup, McPhaul says, a characteristic nurtured by a family elder.
“Our grandmother used to say, ‘That could be Jesus,’ when we’d see someone needing help,” says McPhaul.
In 2020, the initial months of the pandemic shutdown, the trio’s extended family decided they would pool funds and do grocery shopping for four other families not related to them who were feeling the financial effects of the pandemic.
“We are a blessed family, and we wanted to help those who are less fortunate,” says McPhaul.
Ray offers a kindred explanation: “Yes, we are a large family and we realize that by blessing others, blessings come to us.”
The messengers have an extensive network of friends and connections in the Wichita area: McPhaul and her business partner, Boyd, through their event-decorating business, Personal Touch Events; Ray, as the financial secretary for her and McPhaul’s church, Iasis Christian Center, where she also helps with strategic planning; and Carr, who about seven years ago started Us Doing Us, which has become known for organizing old-school family-oriented summertime events in Wichita’s Riverside Park and running the annual toy drive.
Both McPhaul, who holds a doctorate, and Ray are program mentors with the business college of the online Western Governors University and also attend the Iasis Christian Center church.
It was through Michelle Vann, considered the church’s first lady, that McPhaul first heard about Kansas Beats the Virus. Vann and Iasis had participated in the first round of the project. When the second call for action projects went out, McPhaul was ready to join the effort, knowing that with Boyd, Carr and Ray helping out, they could be what she called a dream team.
“We are the bomb went it comes to executing a project,” Ray says.
For seven months they collaborated with one another and their groups of volunteers on projects.
“People wanted to volunteer; they wanted to be a part of what we were doing,” says Ray.
Ford, Carr and McPhaul are former Boeing employees and “accustomed to what it takes to manage projects,” McPhaul says.
Not only could they be in charge, they also had a few other things in their favor that would help them succeed.
“Who’s talking to those people needs to look like those people. The messenger has to have a direct connection to the community. They need to show credibility, and the message needs to come to the people,” McPhaul says.
“You have to bring it to the people.”
So that’s what they did, often wearing yellow T-shirts that said: “Don’t Hesitate, Vaccinate.”
They did neighborhood walks and held an ice cream social where COVID survivors shared their stories and urged vaccinations.
They paired with organizers of established events known to draw crowds – Juneteenth holiday gatherings, football meetings of the popular Wichita Bulldogs youth team and sorority events – to set up information booths and testing and vaccination opportunities.
They went to places where groups would gather that might often be overlooked. Some of Ray’s volunteers, for example, went to nightclubs to share information and urge vaccination.
Sometimes the outreach wasn’t well-received. Carr and a group, along with the county’s health department, set up an information and vaccination booth between two grandstands at Kansas International Speedway, a quarter-mile drag strip in Maize, north of Wichita, during a motorcycle event. Carr, a drag-racer himself who regularly attends the bike races, warned the health department workers it would be a tough crowd.
“I knew that crowd would be one where because of their resistance were probably going to continue to keep this virus in our communities. But they work next to us, they shop in the same grocery stores, so I knew we had to reach them,” Carr says.
“I think corporate America makes too much of an effort doing things that are comfortable … but sometimes you have to do something at the point of discomfort to accomplish things.”
As Carr predicted, “Things did get heated.”
But by the end of the night, they put about 45 shots into the arms of individuals and ran out of the financial incentives they offered for those getting the vaccine.
Getting rewarded monetarily, in most cases with a $100 bill, was a major motivation, McPhaul, Carr and Ray agreed. Incentives are controversial, however, among those who question their impact or appropriateness.
But the group could see firsthand how they played a role in encouraging people to get vaccinated.
“To be incentivized is a key factor,” McPhaul says. “Money makes the world go around.”
Without the incentives, Ray says it was likely they wouldn’t have made a dent in vaccination rates.
Whenever they ran out of the incentive money allotted for each event, they were often asked where the next event would be that offered incentives. A number of individuals told them they wouldn’t get vaccinated without an incentive.
“So what does that tell you? That tells you that the $100 was indeed a motivation,” Ray says.
McPhaul’s team also used the grant money to print up T-shirts, banners and stickers, and buy test kits too. The overarching purpose was providing ways to help their neighbors and fellow Kansans receive information about the virus and vaccines and make it easier for them to get vaccinated.
As for those yellow T-shirts with “Don’t Hesitate, Vaccinate” emblazoned on them, they became popular items with people who wanted to do their part to spread the word. Others should consider it too, the trio says.
“We really enjoyed this,” McPhaul says, about being able to make a difference in their community, as Carr and Ray nodded in agreement. “People will want to help, but you have to provide opportunities.”
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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