By Callie Hietala
The West Piedmont Health District (WPDH) has taken a new step in its push to increase vaccination rates in the area that includes Martinsville, Henry, Patrick, and Franklin counties, with two community health workers added to the team.
Last month, Karen Millner and Jerelle Carter have already begun speaking to people individually or in small groups about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
WPDH Public Information Officer Nancy Bell said the health district was granted $1.5 million to improve the number of vaccinated people in its service area. It chose to use the bulk of those funds to hire the workers, and contracted with United Way of Henry County and Martinsville for $478,112 to do so. That funding covered pay, benefits, technology needed for the job, and mileage reimbursement.
United way of Roanoke Valley is similarly contracted for 3 full-time community health workers in Franklin County.
“It’s personal for both of us,” Millner said, when asked why she and Carter applied for the jobs.
Millner, who is originally from the area, said she wants to make a difference in her community. She was initially interested in the position because she wanted to make inroads into the faith-based community, “because they tend to be more hesitant to getting the shot. I am in that community and come from a long line of pastors (her uncle is the Rev. Tyler Millner of Morning Star Holy Church), so I felt I could reach out and say, ‘I’m Karen, you know me,’ and already have a foot in the door.”
Additionally, she said, she wanted the position because her brother is immunocompromised, and her mother is 81 years old. “I don’t want them bumping into anybody with COVID, so it’s personal when it comes to that.”
She graduated from University of North Carolina Greensboro with a degree in public health, which she said she chose to pursue after her father, who had cancer, passed away. Her more than 15 years in sales gave her a good set of skills that can transfer over to this new position as she educates people on the advantages and benefits of getting the shot.
“My passion,” she said, “is to make sure the entire community where we live, work, play, and worship, gets vaccinated.”
Carter, who grew up in nearby Pittsylvania County but is has lived in the Martinsville area for several years, said he health and wellness is his passion. He earned a master’s degree in the field and spent nearly a decade with the Coalition for Health and Wellness. He then partnered with others to open a gym, Crossfit 276, where, he said, he continues to educate people on their health.
He recalls attending a health fair while working for the coalition and encountering a man who had dangerously high blood pressure. He and his colleagues told the man he needed to go to the hospital immediately, but the man refused.
The next week, Carter said, he saw the man’s obituary in the newspaper. He had died of a heart attack. “That’s one of the reasons, when COVID came around, I decided to get involved this way,” Carter said, adding that he doesn’t want to see more people needlessly die because they didn’t heed medical advice.
Carter, who has a wife and 6 children, said, “I don’t want my kids to miss anymore school, anymore sports, things like that.”
Millner and Carter are in the process of being trained to become certified community health workers. Millner said the training is offered through the Institute for Public Health and will help the new employees ensure equitable health opportunities for all. The 60-hour class focuses on several topics including education about biases, how to connect and communicate with people to talk about things like health and resources, and how to reach out and tap into the resources that may be needed.
“Yes, we’re trying to tackle the COVID issue, but COVID has really impacted the community in several different ways that we’ll be dealing with other than just the ins and outs of getting sick,” including financial hardships and physical and mental health, Carter said.
“A lot of what we learned this week in training was about cultural humility,” Millner said, “and how you are to approach different people from different communities, not making assumptions.”
“COVID has really ravaged the community and the idea of the community health workers is that we want to level the playing field for everybody,” she said.
Millner said examining data helps to pinpoint and target certain groups that may need a little extra attention or convincing.
“That way, you have communities that don’t feel like they’re left behind,” she said. “The objective is to ensure equitable health for all, which is what they’ll be teaching us in these 60 hours.”
Once training is complete, Carter and Millner hit the road to go talk to others about vaccines. Millner and Carter agreed that they try to get information out in organic ways, like going to food banks and talking with people, asking a local hair salon owner to host a small gathering of clients who might be hesitant about getting vaccinated, talking to people at grocery stores or barbershops. When they can, they get the names and numbers of people who have questions about the vaccine, then they follow up and they listen.
Carter added that he has been working on reaching out to schools through parent/teacher meetings and after school programs.
“We’re both people people,” Millner said, which goes a long way when striking up friendly conversations with strangers. It also helps that they are familiar faces in the community.
“It’s a very small town, it really is,” she said. Everybody knows everybody and “that familiarity goes a long way with confidence in what you’re saying and trust in what you’re saying. It’s important too that we look like the community we’re targeting.”
So far, responses to their conversations have been varied, Carter said. Of the hundreds the two have spoken with since beginning their work, some sign up to get a shot, others flatly refuse, while others say they would prefer to do more of their own research.
“Google is not research,” Carter cautioned.
Both said that, within the Black community, many have issues with trusting the government.
“The Tuskegee Experiment comes up a lot,” Carter said, and both Carter and Millner use their personal stories to help soothe fears and vaccine hesitancy.
“I got (the shot), my whole family got it. There is no way I would allow my family to get it if I felt unsafe with it,” Millner said. “Those words transcend. It means a lot for people to hear you say that and some of them allow you to continue to talk.”
“At the bottom of it all is fear,” she said, and the way she and Carter work through that is by listening respectfully and responding to those fears.
During one conversation, she said she went through a list of concerns. While the person opted to not get the vaccine, Millner said she was told, “I appreciate that you listened to me, you allowed me to talk, and you didn’t make it seem as if my concerns were not valid.”
She said she will continue to follow up with that person.
“Because I allowed him to walk out of the room with the same dignity he walked into the room with, I can have another conversation with him,” she added.
Once the workers have done completed their mission in terms of COVID vaccinations, Carter said he and Millner will continue to work to talk to people about health in the community, educating them on overall wellness and issues including hypertension, diabetes, heart health, and other issues.
Millner believes the inroads they will make in the community while working on COVID vaccinations will give them several good resources to build upon when the new chapter of their work begins.
Neither are discouraged that relatively few of those they have spoken with have agreed to get the vaccine. They have only been on the job a few months, and they know that it can take time for their time and effort to take effect. They will continue to listen, to respond to concerns and assuage fears, and working for the health of the place they call home.
“We’re planting seeds,” Millner said, “and I do believe they will eventually sprout, and we’ll see the fruits of our labors. We’re just getting started.”