By Callie Hietala
The Martinsville City Council on Tuesday heard from Nancy Bell, Public Information Officer for the West Piedmont Health District, about “the ongoing saga about COVID-19,” City Manager Leon Towarnicki said.
Bell said the health district is mounting a new effort to combat widespread misinformation about COVID-19 and to encourage residents to get vaccinated. The region has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state — 42 percent of eligible people in Martinsville have been vaccinated, she said, while only 30 percent of the eligible population of neighboring Patrick County have received a vaccine.
Bell also pointed out that currently, more than 90 percent of people who have contracted the COVID-19 virus are unvaccinated.
These low vaccination rates caught the attention of the Virginia Department of Health, which granted the district additional funding to help fight the spread of the virus in whatever way they saw fit. Bell said the district will use some of the funds to hire three community health workers. These workers will be hired from communities with low vaccination rates and tasked with going out among their friends and neighbors to talk about the vaccines, their safety, and their efficacy. They can even arrange transportation to help residents reach vaccination sites.
Addressing a question from council member Danny Turner, Bell said, “Research shows that if you, Danny Turner, as an official of the city, talk to people about getting vaccinated, they will listen to you more than they will listen to me.”
These new community health workers will be selected specifically because understand the communities they are serving. Bell said the jobs will be posted soon, with new hires expected to be working by late August or early September.
Ideally, a good prospect would be someone from a community struggling with low vaccination rates, Bell said. The candidate also would have a high school diploma or GED, be sensitive, culturally aware, and have a lot of energy.
“This is not a desk job,” she said.
The new positions will come with benefits, phones, computers, and ongoing certification training so that once their pandemic-related work is complete, the health workers will be able to apply their skills in new ways within the community.
Bell said the rest of the money from VDH will be used on marketing to help educate the public about the safety of vaccines.
“We hear a lot of rumors so we’re really working to quell the rumors,” Bell said.
The health district is producing posters to help combat some of the widespread myths surrounding the vaccines, including narratives about vaccinations leading to infertility or changing a person’s DNA.
“It’s not our role to chase people down and stick them in the arm,” Bell said. “We want to convince them using facts.”
Turner noted that some vaccine hesitancy could be related to the opioid crisis in the region.
“Big pharma was pushing it out the door, so people have a lot of doubt about big pharma,” he said.
Bell said she hopes that approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will help soothe some of those fears.
The Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna vaccines have all been under emergency authorization since last year. She expects FDA approval for at least one vaccine “any day now.”
Until the region reaches a higher vaccination rate, Bell said the best thing residents can do to protect the unvaccinated – including children who are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine – is continue to distance, wash hands, and, wear masks.
“Millions of people have gotten the vaccines, and they are very healthy. Johnson and Johnson has had some weird side-effects, but nothing deadly. The Delta variant is deadly,” Bell said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Delta variant is nearly twice as contagious as previous variants and data suggest it may cause more severe illness in unvaccinated people than previous strains of the virus.
Bell hopes that the district’s new efforts to reach under-vaccinated populations in the area will convince more residents to trust the vaccines and get a shot.
“We are here to help you have a healthy life. We don’t want to harm you at all. If I thought this vaccine was harmful in any way, I wouldn’t recommend you get it,” she said.
Mayor Kathy Lawson thanked Bell for her work.
“I just want to say thank you for the job that you have done in educating the community. I appreciate you coming here tonight and sharing this information with us…. And hopefully this will be a positive move forward toward getting people vaccinated.”
In other matters, the council:
*Adopted a resolution confirming concurrence with revisions to the West Piedmont Planning District Commission’s Charter, as approved by the WPPDC’s Board of Commissioners at a meeting in May.
*Reviewed, discussed, and approved an updated policy for public comment at future council meetings, including limiting a speaker to three minutes, requiring speakers to sign up to speak by noon the day before the meeting, and asking that groups (such as citizen or neighborhood groups) speaking on the same topic select one representative speaker.