Their Best Shot

Custodian With a dry mop in a hallway

Healthcare Partners Tackling Pandemic Now Eying Other Community Needs

By Gina Gallucci-White. Photography by Turner Photography Studio

Gracey Zurita lost her father to COVID-19. He was living in her family’s native Ecuador where the vaccines are not as readily available as in the United States. So, when the Frederick County community health worker is on duty at local events like vaccine clinics, she often talks about her father and the importance of getting vaccinated because she doesn’t want others to suffer the same loss. “Helping people is my passion,” she says.

Frederick is the third-highest vaccinated county in the state (behind Montgomery and Howard counties), according to the most recent data. Of the entire population, including those under the age of 5 who were not eligible for doses until late June, 79.1 percent are fully vaccinated, meaning they have had at least two shots.

One reason the county was able to able to reach such a high percentage was due to the efforts of the COVID-19 Task Force made up of community organizations and health partners that typically work in their own spheres. “There was no way to address what was going on with COVID and [still] stay in your lane,” says Dr. Rachel Mandel, a senior healthcare consultant and task force member. “Having a group of organizations and people in the community who are tackling this on a countywide basis and seeing all the data, seeing where the gaps were, where there were pockets of people who needed attention and coordinating all of that while getting feedback from the community as to what their needs were, there was no other way to approach it and be successful. It really taught us some lessons about collaboration and looking at a problem systemically. It taught us those lessons pretty quickly.”

Early in the pandemic, the task force focused on testing and education with vaccinations coming a year later. The efforts included looking at the needs of the community as well as allocating resources and organizing clinics. “In order to do this [outreach], you had to collaborate,” Mandel says. “The point was not to duplicate work and to really just try to magnify the work and support all the organizations that were involved.”

Task force members knew it was unrealistic to expect everyone in the county to come to Frederick City for information, testing and vaccinations. Angela Spencer, the task force’s community vaccine outreach project coordinator, reached out to nonprofits, schools, libraries, senior groups and churches to set up on-site clinics, a mobile van and educational talks in person and online. “If I see a need, I am not going to walk by that need,” Spencer says. “I am going to do what I can do to correct that problem.” The work is personal for Spencer who lost a family member to the disease. “If I can help to make a difference and an impact, that is what drives me,” she says.

The task force also hired bilingual staff and offered clinics tailored to those with disabilities, with the goal of combating existing healthcare disparities among persons of color, low-income individuals and others. “It was important to us to establish a specific plan and intention on doing our part to reduce disparities in testing and then part of that involves working with community partners,” says Dr. Barbara A. Brookmyer, Frederick County Health Officer.

“Then we replicated that when we had the vaccine, as well.” Several pop-up clinics were set up at the same time and location for months so word could spread through communities of their availability. These clinics were also often paired with community services and food drops so residents could have a one stop for needs.

Heather Kirby, Frederick Health’s vice president of integrated care and delivery and chief population officer, notes the task force collaboration shows the power of community. “I think Frederick is really fortunate to have so many invested passionate partners and community organizations,” she says. “When something is really important to the health and well-being of the community, there is a tremendous power in our coming together and working together to really protect the community and keep them safe.”

“The reason we didn’t lose more life here and have more harm from this virus is because of [the group effort] and it is something you can’t take for granted.” says Malcolm Furgol, executive director of the Frederick County Health Care Coalition and community benefit specialist for Frederick Health.

Mandel notes that sometimes task force members would get frustrated when people would not understand the importance of vaccines. “I would say the answer to that is your job is not to convince them to get vaccinated,” she says. “Your job is to give them the information that they need so they can make a decision, but understand that every person who decides that they want to get vaccinated is perhaps one less person that ends up in the hospital or ends up dying. It is really that simple. It is one less person who gets infected who may infect somebody else who may end up in the hospital and end up dying,” she repeats.

State and federal funding for the task force was due to expire at the start of this month. “We will continue to have conversations about the needs of the community and how we can meet them,” Spencer says.

“Just because there will no longer be a grant, we realize there will still be a need so our presence will still be visible—not to the degree it has been for the past year—but we will still be available for the community.”

“We still have a lot going on,” Mandel adds. “We are still working. We are still meeting. We are still doing whatever needs to happen because it is important.”

The pandemic continues but life, in general, has transitioned into a new normal with most people returning to their offices and daily routines. “People may be over the virus but the virus is not over you,” Mandel says. “The virus is still out there doing its thing. …The virus is looking for opportunities and if you are not vaccinated you are an opportunity. Every time somebody gets infected, there is an opportunity for the virus to mutate into a worse form of the virus that impacts all of us, even those of us that are up-to-date and fully vaccinated. We are all in this together and that is why it is so important. This is a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. People go, ‘Well, I’ve never had to take three shots before, I’ve never had to take four shots before.’ And all I can say to them is we have never in our lifetime had a pandemic like this before. Sometimes it takes extraordinary measures for extraordinary circumstances. Everybody just wants to do the best we can and to have an impact and to be able to look back and say we did the best we could and that we were as successful as we could be given the circumstances and environment.”

Shawn Dennison, Frederick County Health Department public affairs officer notes there are four words he and Danielle Haskin, Frederick County Health Department community COVID-19 testing/health equity officer, often use: engage, listen, respond and repeat. They would engage community partners and community members, listen to their concerns, suggestions and recommendations, respond with information, education and answers, and repeat. “One of the major takeaways from the pandemic and everything we have been through—all the things we have learned, especially collaborating with community partners—[is] we are going to take that forward for other reasons,” he says. “It is all built upon something that existed, it expanded during the pandemic and it will continue on.”

With the collaborative infrastructure now in place, officials hope to use the system to tackle other health issues such as diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure.

“We have so many more friends now and we are really looking forward to expanding our work with them beyond COVID-19,” Brookmyer says.

Vaccine Providers in Frederick County: 

  • Frederick County Health Department
  • Frederick Health
  • Frederick Community Action Agency
  • Pharmacies
  • Primary care physicians 

Vaccine Information and Provision Network Partners:

  • Frederick County Health Department
  • Frederick Health
  • Frederick County Health Care Coalition
  • Asian American Center of Frederick
  • United Way of Frederick County
  • Spanish Speaking Community of Maryland
  • Love for Lochlin Foundation
  • Multiple other organizations, including faith-based organizations, retail businesses, nonprofits, municipalities, National Guard, state agencies and grassroot entities
Frederick Magazine