CLARKSDALE, Miss. – Eola Murry, 75, never questioned that she wanted to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it became available. The problem was getting to the vaccine.
For Murry and other homebound older adults in Clarksdale, a rural community without robust public transportation, getting anywhere can be a challenge: buying groceries, a trip to the laundromat or to doctor's appointments.
And although people 75 and older in Mississippi have been eligible for vaccinations for four months, it wasn’t until Wednesday that Murry finally received her shot.
She was one of about 80 older adults vaccinated as part of the first-ever mobile vaccination event hosted by the state. Participants were picked up by bus at senior apartment complexes or their homes and driven to a community health center.
“I loved it — quick and easy," Murry said, walking down the hallway at Aaron Henry Community Health Services Center after getting her Johnson & Johnson shot, a bandage on her arm. “I'm ready to go back and get me another one.”
More than half a million people have now been fully vaccinated in Mississippi, a state with a population of around 3 million. At least 45% of those are people 65 and older.
But despite tremendous progress, inoculations among older adults are slowing, according to the federal government. Mississippi is looking for creative ways to bridge the gaps with vaccinations and reach underserved communities.
“We know that there are a subset of older folks who are not as mobile and maybe have transportation issues,” the Mississippi state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said Friday. He said the Health Department is beginning “an aggressive push” in the 18 most under-vaccinated counties, all of which have high poverty levels.
“We're going to really hit those guys hard and do door-to-door, Saturday clinics, all that sort of thing,” Dobbs said.
Department of Human Services spokesperson Danny Blanton said places like Clarksdale are especially important to reach because of the state’s focus on vaccinating minorities and older adults, two groups disproportionately affected by the virus. The city is more than 80% Black.
Older adults face barriers because they are isolated, said Emily Meredith, director at the Rev. S.L.A Jones Activity Center, a senior center and adult day care in Clarksdale.
“A lot of them, they’re not going anywhere, they aren’t using social media, they don’t know that these drive-thru vaccination sites are going on or how to get there,” Meredith said. “They really need us to go to them.”
The state partnered with the North Delta Area Agency on Aging and the Rev. S.L.A Jones Activity Center, which serves residents ages 60 and older for free, regardless of income.
The center — located next to low-income elderly housing — has been shut down for months because of the pandemic, but staff stayed in close contact with residents, delivering weekly meals and care packages with water and toilet and tissue paper for people who can’t get to the store.
Those connections made reaching residents about vaccinations easier: Staff members called each client individually and stopped by to drop off paper materials on the vaccine.
On Wednesday, Linda Busby, 74, nervously approached the exam room with a walker. While a nurse gave her the shot, she squeezed her leg and looked away.
She said she was scared to get the vaccine. But when it was over, she was happy she'd done it.
Busby said she's been lonely the last year staying at home in isolation with her white cat, Baby. She's missed being able to go to the center each day to spend time with other residents.
Many residents said they were excited to get the vaccine to be able to socialize again.
The center opened again last week. Masks and social distancing are still required, but vaccinations provide an additional safety net, Meredith said.
P.M. Brower, 88, said before the pandemic, she came to the center every day to play dominos or bingo, her favorite.
For the last year, the highlight of her week has been driving to Captain D’s to get shrimp and another restaurant for catfish. She hasn't been able to visit with any of the other older people in the community or anyone else.
“Ain’t nothing else to do,” she said. “I just wave at people, and I don’t stop.”
Sitting with a group of three other women at a colorfully decorated center table Wednesday, she said she was looking forward to playing bingo again. “It's really nice for all of us to be here," she said. “I can't say it enough.”
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.