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By Tracy Fitzsimmons

Jan 28, 2021

Sometimes, good things really do come in small packages. In the Northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, this has come in the form of a small university partnering with a small health system and a semirural health district to get thousands of people vaccinated.

It is a model that is replicable across the country because it requires nothing but community partnership, an all-hands-on-deck attitude and a deep-seated belief that all the diverse peoples in our community are lives that deserve to be saved — no matter their political persuasion, color, religion, housing status or income level.

In the midst of our country’s vaccine distribution challenges, our three-way partnership has vaccinated more than 8,000 people over the past two weeks. It is a communitywide effort with scores of volunteers. It is the best of America.

We are ready and able to do 15,000 a week, but instead, our vaccinators and volunteers are sitting idle most days, waiting for doses that are sporadic and uncertain. This week, we had cause for celebration. At 4 p.m. Tuesday, we were notified that we would receive 2,500 doses; by Wednesday night, all of those shots were in arms.

Here, waiting for the doses to arrive is the only waiting that is done. At our mass-vaccine clinic, we have no lines. No waiting in cars or outdoors. People arrive, check in, get screened-vaccinated-observed and depart within 30 minutes. The process runs smoothly and efficiently. Guests are transported in golf carts to and from their cars. And during the mandatory 15-minute, post-vaccine medical observation stage, guests listen to Shenandoah Conservatory musicians in what might be their first in-person “concert” since the pandemic started.

I’ve seen all sorts of people come through the clinic. Yes, I mean racial and religious diversity. But so much more: Some come with “Make America Great Again” hats, some with Black Lives Matter T-shirts. Some come with a smile, some dancing with joy and others with a prayer of gratitude. I chuckled at the “Because Fauci Said So” mask. I’ll never forget the Vietnam veteran who shared with me that COVID-19 had him fearing for his life as much as the war once did. I was moved by a caretaker doting on a 100-year-old woman. Every person is welcomed with warmth.

This experience has taught all of us who are involved so much. We’ve learned a lot about the power of humanity. Each day, more than a thousand people, mostly elderly, receive their shots through the clinic held on our campus. They are so relieved to finally get this coveted vaccine. One older woman dressed up for the occasion — after all, this was the first time she had been out of her house in months.

We’ve realized that “come wait in line” favors those who are mobile, those who are not employed and those who do not have young children in tow. We also have come to learn that “register online” doesn’t reach all constituents; it favors those individuals who continually can monitor the registration portal and grab a vaccine slot when it becomes available. In other words, it favors those who own a computer, have the luxury of time to watch the registration website and are computer-savvy.

We’ve learned it was critical to reach out to local churches, mosques and synagogues in underserved areas, and to call the homeless shelters and food pantries. The way to ensure that all people have access to the vaccine is to directly reach out to extend an invitation and to guard time slots for them. These groups, based on their community-facing jobs and demographics, need the vaccine the most but are least likely to get it — based on a lack of trust in mainstream medicine, a lack of transportation, and the lack of computer and internet access needed to register for vaccination.

We’ve learned that we must fight COVID-19 together. Even though we are open for in-person education, Shenandoah figured out how to make our campus available as a vaccine site in partnership with Valley Health and the Lord Fairfax Health District. Every college, large church and large business across the country, in rural or urban areas, can replicate our model in partnership with their local hospital and health district.

As one community member said, everyone at this vaccine clinic gets “treated like a VIP,” and this is the way it should be. Every person who receives their vaccine should feel important during this historic effort. This gift is something to remember. It is a lifesaving gift. If only there were more doses available.

Tracy Fitzsimmons, Ph.D, has served as president of Shenandoah University since 2008. She is the past chair of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Council of Independent Colleges and the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges.

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