Community health centers go hyper-local in vaccination outreach

Mike Moen
Devils Lake Daily Journal

BISMARCK -- North Dakota's governor and health-care leaders want residents to take COVID-19 seriously to prevent the snowball effects of the latest variant surge. Community Health Centers are stepping up to help.

This week saw Gov. Doug Burgum and large health systems plead with North Dakotans to get their vaccinations and wear masks, or more hospitals will be pushed to the limit this fall.

Only 51% of residents 18 and older have received all their shots.

Lori Dumke, chief operating officer of Northland Health Centers, said with misinformation still flying around, their clinics are trying to put skeptics at ease by connecting with prominent figures in communities with low access to care.

During the pandemic, Community Health Centers in the U.S. reached 70,000 more elderly patients and a higher proportion of rural patients than they had before.

"'Can we take a picture of you getting a vaccine?'" Dumke explained. "You know, just showing in the community that trusted leaders are for it, I think is a huge step forward."

The National Association of Community Health Centers said in the U.S., clinics have administered 15 million COVID shots. The group said during the crisis, the centers also boosted telehealth to keep reaching underserved communities, and provided COVID care in non-emergency situations.

Those still reluctant to get vaccinated cite such reasons as personal freedom or mistrust of government.

Whether it is smaller, community-driven health facilities or larger providers, their message is uniform: The vaccines are safe, and most hospitalizations involve unvaccinated patients.

Janice Hamscher, chief nursing officer of Altru Health System in Grand Forks, said on Wednesday of this week, they had 10 COVID patients, and only one had received a shot.

"That continues to be a trend that we're seeing," Hamscher reported. "Unvaccinated individuals having more severe cases of COVID that result in hospitalization."

North Dakota's rolling 14-day average positivity rate for COVID cases had fallen to 1% in early July. It has now crept up to nearly 7% going into September.