Knowledge Quest executive director Marlon Foster (right) talks with (from left) Geneva Smith, Linda Williams, Leroy Pate, and Altamese McPhee during a COVID-19 vaccination pop-up at Knowledge Quest in Memphis, Tenn. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

Geneva Smith had figured she would get vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus – the only question was when. 

Smith, 45, wanted to get the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot, but changed her mind after the brief pause in its use. And her 64-year-old mother was skeptical of the vaccines “because of trust issues” with the U.S. government, Smith said.

But the recent surge in cases, caused by the highly transmissible Delta variant, changed their minds. On Saturday, it was time, said Smith, a physical therapy technician for the state and a nursing student at the University of Memphis.

“I’m in the health care field … and my parents are older, so I don’t want them to have to get COVID and not have anything to fight against it. So we’re just taking extra precautions to go and get it now,” she said, wearing colorful patterned scrubs and a silver-sequined face mask as she escorted her parents out of the pop-up COVID-19 vaccination event at Knowledge Quest in South Memphis.

As Shelby County grapples with a rising tide of confirmed COVID-19 cases, there is a glimmer of hope: After weeks of declining vaccination numbers, and in a county with lower-than-average vaccination rates, more and more people are choosing to get their shots. 

“With the Delta variant, I think that’s gotten folks’ attention just with those numbers on the rise,” said the Rev. Marlon Foster, executive director of Knowledge Quest, a social services organization.

The county’s rising vaccination rate mirrors what’s happening nationally, especially in other hotspots

Vaccinations in Shelby County are still far lower than their peak. For the seven-day period between April 6 and 12, county data shows an average of nearly 8,600 people were vaccinated daily.

James Hunter was among those who received a dose of vaccine during a COVID-19 vaccination pop-up event at Knowledge Quest.

On June 1, the county reported a seven-day average of 1,349 vaccinations a day and a seven-day average of only 66 cases. Both metrics trended down until the end of June when they started to diverge. Vaccinations continued to drop, plunging to an average of just 761 per day on July 7, while cases began to climb.

But vaccination numbers didn’t stay that low for too long, and the week-by-week county numbers show a steady rise. The county is now averaging 1,500 shots a day. That’s up from a seven-day daily average of 1,067 two weeks ago.

No giving up

The virus has disproportionately affected Black and low-income neighborhoods, and areas with lower vaccination rates have been hit harder in recent COVID-19 resurgences. Some of the county’s first mass vaccination sites were also not easily accessible for Black residents. Those early inequities in the rollout helped solidify some people’s anxieties about the vaccine’s safety, community leaders have said.

Knowledge Quest is in the 38126 ZIP code in South Memphis, where (along with 38106) just under 32% of the residents have been vaccinated, according to county data. Those ZIP codes are both 96% Black and have an average household income of just under $28,000 and just over $34,000, respectively.

That vaccination rate is far below the county’s 48% vaccination rate, and less than half the rate of the most vaccinated ZIP codes, 38138 and 38139 in Germantown, which are 68% vaccinated. Those ZIP codes are 87% and 92% white, respectively, and have average household incomes of just under $141,000 and $200,000.

But rates have been ticking up in both areas, each gaining about eight percentage points since mid-May.

Officials have been trying for months to boost vaccination numbers and combat hesitancy. City and county volunteers have knocked on doors, offered gift cards and are now employing what Memphis Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen called a “concierge” vaccination service. As volunteers go door to door, anyone who requests a vaccination will have a shot at their door within two hours, McGowen said.

On Tuesday, the county health department released its newest health directive, recommending people get vaccinated, wear masks in indoor settings regardless of vaccination status and wear masks outdoors when near people who may be unvaccinated.

At Knowledge Quest’s first vaccination event, which lasted for three hours July 10, only 10 people got shots, Foster said.

Between the two events, organizers worked to spread the word on social media, in-person and in church services at Christ Quest Community Church, which Foster pastors.  

They also tried a new incentive. Instead of paying for Uber or Lyft rides to the event, as they did the first time, Knowledge Quest, in partnership with Amerigroup health insurance, had $25 gift cards for the first 50 people to get vaccinated to spend as they saw fit. 

“Let’s just put the power in their hands with the incentive and see what happens,” Foster said. “I think it was helpful.”

Pastor Marlon Foster offers Bernice Campos produce from a stand at Knowledge Quest during a COVID-19 vaccination pop-up event Saturday. Campos and her husband decided to get the shot while they were visiting their daughter from Mexico. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50 

All 24 people who received shots Saturday got gift cards. Of those, 18 were first doses and three were Johnson & Johnson. Foster was pleased that they’d managed to surpass their July 10 numbers in the first hour. And a paramedic who brought a second supply of shots after the clinic used up their first batch said he’s also noticed an uptick in vaccinations.

In temperatures so high they prompted a heat advisory, Foster stood outside Knowledge Quest at a table, offering free, fresh produce from the organization’s organic farm.

That’s where Tananaree Conklin’s daughters headed after the family got their shots. Conklin brought her four daughters – Alyssa Conklin, 12, Arieanna Conklin, 14, Adrian Reese, 17, and Ashanti Reese, 19 – plus her 45-year-old sister, Altamese McPhee, who she said has special needs, and her 71-year-old father, Robert Reese, to get vaccinated Saturday morning. 

Her daughters said they came because mom decided it was time. Adrian had seen a lot of conspiracy theories about it on social media, she said, but ultimately she puts her faith in God for the family “to have a good outcome” from the vaccine, which officials say are overwhelmingly safe and effective.

Given the success of Saturday’s event, Knowledge Quest will likely hold a third, Foster said.

“That’s what I’m finding out – to not just give up when we had a low turnout the first time, but to really keep chipping away.”

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