Combating COVID-19 Conspiracies To Reach Georgia’s Vaccine Hesitant In Cultures Where It’s Taboo
It was nearly 90 degrees on a Sunday in July and the Clarkston Health Community Center had to shutter its doors.
The air conditioning in the 60-year-old office building-turned-makeshift free clinic went out and all appointments had to be canceled for the day. That meant COVID-19 vaccine appointments, too.
Dr. Gulshan Harjee, a founder of the clinic, wasn’t optimistic that those vaccines would go to use.
“They were so hard to schedule,” Harjee said. “And now when you have to reschedule somebody with vaccine hesitancy, it's going to be impossible to bring them back.”
The nonprofit organization sits in the heart of Clarkston. Within the square mile surrounding it, Harjee estimates more than 60 languages are spoken.
Immigrants, many refugees, make up more than half of the residents in this Atlanta-area city of about 13,000 people. The population is at high risk of contracting the coronavirus and, community leaders say, is among the hardest to convince to be vaccinated.
Harjee and her team — who are nearly all volunteers — work to combat far-fetched conspiracies and misinformation that reach these Clarkston residents, often from family and friends back home in their country of origin.
“People in the Western society have different reasons for denying vaccines than people who are immigrants,” she said. “It's very hard to deal with vaccine hesitancy. They have very strange ideas. And we try to have conversations and we listen to them.”
The task is so difficult that patients who want to get the shot are often shepherded into private rooms, Harjee said, because receiving any vaccine is a cultural taboo.
But the risk of serious infection could not be greater for the immigrant and refugee communities. Many are frontline workers and live with multiple generations of family members under one roof.
Harjee said most of the clinic’s patients who contracted the virus got very sick — and some remain COVID-19 long haulers: survivors of the disease who suffer serious health side effects weeks and months later.
“When you're malnourished, you’re food insecure, you live in a housing where there are multiple generations and very close space,” she said. “Our patients are very vulnerable for all these reasons.”
The low vaccination rate for the immigrant community has prompted federal initiatives. Last month, GPB reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta, awarded researchers at Georgia State University $500,000 to combat vaccine hesitancy.
The goal is to reduce vaccine hesitancy and increase the number of people vaccinated in Clarkston by 50% by spring 2022.
In that area of DeKalb County, according to the Department of Public Health, just over 30% of residents are vaccinated.
Long before the pandemic, the Clarkston Community Health Center was dealing with an influx of uninsured patients that strained the provider of resources.
Georgia has the third-highest rate in the nation of uninsured and is one of the remaining states that has not expanded Medicaid to help cover low-income adults.
While experts say it is too soon to know the actual impact of COVID-19, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated in May that as many as 1.4 million Georgians could lose their employer-sponsored insurance because of the pandemic.
Since opening in 2015, the clinic has struggled to keep up with the demand of indigent patients.
“There are no books you can read about how to operate a free clinic during a pandemic,” Harjee said.
Leaders at the clinic have worked to upgrade to a new facility that can serve more patients, but have hit roadblock after roadblock.
However, this month Harjee and the other founders of the clinic received welcome news: A donor pledged $2.5 million to help move them into a new facility, not far away, where the air conditioning works.