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American Public Health Association Recognizes Healthy Savannah for Community Health Advocate Program

COVID-19 vaccination rates for Black and Hispanic residents living in Savannah and Chatham County have risen measurably over the past 18 months. Now, Healthy Savannah is receiving national attention for its Community Health Advocate program developed to elevate vaccine awareness, access and acceptance among those priority populations.

The American Public Health Association (APHA), recently invited Healthy Savannah’s REACH team to speak at its national conference. The 150-year-old organization known for championing public health was particularly interested in learning about how Healthy Savannah developed and manages its CHA program, and how it may be influencing positive adult vaccination rates, particularly in Savannah’s low-wealth communities.

“We are so honored to have had such an outpouring of interest at the recent APHA conference about how we developed community training in tandem with outreach efforts in the faith community to increase vaccine awareness, acceptance and access,” said Dr. Elsie Smalls, Adult Immunization operations manager.

According to the Georgia Department of Health, Chatham County residents receiving at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine rose from 52.4% in October 2022 to 55.6% in December 2023. Vaccination rates for Black residents receiving at least one dose rose from 51.8% in June 2022 to 52.4% last October to current levels of 55.6%. For the Hispanic community, those receiving one dose have increased from 42.2% in June 2022 to 47% in October 2022 and now that rate is at 48%.

Members of Healthy Savannah’s REACH team were invited to speak in November at the APHA’S 2023 Annual Meeting & Expo in Atlanta where they explained why they developed the CHA program and how it has affected the community over the past couple of years. They also presented on how nurturing relationships among faith communities helped get research-backed information about the COVID vaccine as well as the vaccine itself out into the community.

“The roundtable session, entitled ‘Collaborate and Power Up,’ highlighted the amazing work of the 77 Community Health Advocates we have trained to provide information to increase awareness, access and acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine in Chatham County,” said Nichele Hoskins, the Adult Immunization team’s communications manager. “Over 40 people attended the session and commented on how we partnered with community members to spread the word and address health inequities during the pandemic. Many said that a similar program would be useful in other communities across the country.”

During the presentation, Smalls and Hoskins explained how Healthy Savannah kept a close watch on Department of Health reports in the early days of the pandemic which showed vaccination rates for Black and Hispanic persons were lagging behind the general population. Combining survey results and feedback from 200 community partners, the organization’s leadership recognized the low numbers were likely influenced by historical skepticism of government programs among those in the Black community and language barriers among many in the Hispanic community.

Utilizing a supplemental grant funded by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC), Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program, and with the support of the grant co-administrator the YMCA of Coastal Georgia, Healthy Savannah then developed the program that would employ metrics of listening to the community followed by a system of training, support and outreach efforts.

In the summer of 2021, Healthy Savannah invited community members to attend listening sessions to share their experiences, perspectives, and concerns about the pandemic, as well as vaccine efficacy and safety. This was followed in the fall by offering an initial training session to equip select members of the community with materials and guidance to engage in outreach activities within the Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino communities.

To date, Healthy Savannah has offered six training sessions and engaged 77 CHAs and vaccine providers to distribute evidence-based education, dispel disinformation, and offer pop-up vaccine clinics in diverse community locations, public events, and faith-based sites.

“The Community Engagement Spectrum approach has been proven to be effective in a variety of settings, recognizing the value of human assets that already exist within the community to move toward a healthier nation,” said Smalls.

Healthy Savannah has also equipped the CHAs to develop culturally and linguistically appropriate materials with compelling messages about prevention, symptoms, disease spread, treatment, and health resources available in the community.

“Through the REACH grant, we have supported 23 faith-based organizations through nearly $20,000 in mini grants to support COVID-vaccine awareness events since 2021,” Hoskins said.

The national stage at the 2023 APHA conference additionally offered a platform for Healthy Savannah to show other communities that a grass-roots effort can help lead to acceptance through increasing awareness and availability.

“We are especially pleased to congratulate Dr. Nandi Marshall on her appointment as incoming executive chair of APHA,” said Hoskins. “She has been an integral part of our local REACH team as a champion of breastfeeding education and awareness. Now, in this post-pandemic era, we are eager to work alongside her in the broadening field of adult immunization education to strengthen awareness, acceptance, and availability for the underinsured both here in Savannah and across our nation.”

Nandi A. Marshall, DrPH, MPH, CHES®, CLC, CDE®, is an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Community Health and the associate dean for Academic Affairs in the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University. She is currently serving a four-year term on the APHA Executive Board, most recently appointed as the vice-chair. Additionally, she has served as the Science Board chair and co-chair of the Joint Policy Committee.

The APHA is known for championing the health of all people and all communities and for strengthening the public health profession. It is the only organization that combines a 150-year perspective, a broad-based member community and the ability to influence federal policy to improve the public’s health. The APHA also publishes the American Journal of Public Health and The Nation’s Health newspaper.

ABOUT THE YMCA OF COASTAL GEORGIA/HEALTHY SAVANNAH GRANT FOR RACIAL AND ETHNIC APPROACHES TO COMMUNITY HEALTH: In September 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded a second grant called Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) to Healthy Savannah and the YMCA of Coastal Georgia. $5.1 million in funding is being deployed over a five-year period to be utilized in an “upstream” approach to foster sustainable health equity among racial and ethnic minority populations in low-wealth neighborhoods in areas of nutrition, physical activity and the reduction of chronic diseases. The renewed funding enables work to continue which began under the initial, five-year, $3.4 million REACH grant awarded in 2018, and a supplemental grant awarded in 2021 to increase awareness and acceptance of COVID-19 and flu adult immunizations. Working with more than 200 community partners and organizations, the Savannah/Chatham County project team’s specific goals in implementing the new five-year grant include fostering physical activity by creating greater access to safe places to walk, run, bike and play; elevating the health and wellness of the community through policy, systems, and environmental change; and providing education and awareness regarding adult immunizations, especially as they relate to health disparities in chronic conditions of hypertension, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity. The administrators will also continue to foster stronger connections between people and the healthcare providers who serve them by supporting awareness and use of the HERO Help Me database. In July 2022, Healthy Savannah received the CDC’s 2022 REACH Lark Galloway-Gilliam Award for Advancing Health Equity Challenge. The award recognizes extraordinary individuals and entities whose work has contributed to advancing health equity.  |

Marjorie Young
Carriage Trade Public Relations® Inc.

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