Wallace Foster Smith has spent the summer walking through much of southwest and northeast Rochester, popping into businesses from Jefferson to Dewey avenues, coming up to people on corners along Driving Park and North Street and going door to door in the Edgerton neighborhood to ask folks if they want to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I don’t go out trying to convince people to get vaccines,” said the 22-year-old city resident. “But I do go out with the intention of informing people on vaccines and to educate themselves on the matter so that they’re not their decisions aren’t swayed by conspiracies and things that just aren’t true.”
Smith is an ambassador in a program run out of Common Ground Health and supported by the United Way and Monroe County.
Smith looks for the teachable moment, an opportunity to share facts and dispel fears. He may talk to 20, 30 people in a four-shift before heading back to a location where vaccines are being given.
“I walk in and I may see someone that’s actually someone I reached out to, someone I gave information to,” Smith said. “And they’re like, ‘I made it. I’m here. I said I would.” And it’s like, ‘You said you would, I appreciate you so much for keeping the community safe.’ ”
The ambassador program through Common Ground Health is one of several approaches to increase vaccination rates in city neighborhoods, where initially COVID-19 vaccines were slower to arrive and where hesitation and resistance took many forms. The ambassadors are people from neighborhoods where rates tend to be less than the county rate of 74% percent among adults. The campaign is at getyouranswers.org.
Common Ground, along with Causewave Community Partners and the Finger Lakes Vaccine Hub and Task Force are working with the Truth Collective on a media campaign featuring everyday people asking questions about the vaccine and getting answers from local experts.
While ambassadors have been on the streets for months, their work has new urgency with emergence of the delta variant. The highly-contagious strain has caused a spike in cases in Monroe County. More than 100 new cases were reported Aug. 4 and Aug. 6, the first time that happened since May.
The variant has hit Monroe County as restrictions have been eased, leaving some to fear that Black and Latino residents, whose vaccination rates lag those of white city residents, would fall further behind.
It is difficult to tie the work of the ambassadors to a percentage increase in vaccine because their efforts complement those of the faith community and of business owners who also promote vaccine awareness. Phyllis Jackson, community wellness project manager for Common Ground Health, said there is no goal for ambassadors to hit.
“The expectation was that ambassadors would be out there to help people make an informed decision,” she said. “By doing so, the hope was that once they could talk with somebody that the numbers would go up exponentially. So there was no known percentage tied to the ambassadors.”
The ambassadors are paid for a 20-hour week and the program is funded through grants. Jackson said ambassadors would stay on the streets as long as the money continued.
Smith was part of the original group of people performing COVID tests. That experience led him to the vaccine team, where he was assigned to the convention center. He was asked to join the ambassadors, where he described himself as a man on mission.
He recounted times where he used his cell phone to sign up a person for a vaccine or shown someone how to look up vaccine sites.
“Some people get vaccinated on a whim,” he said.
“Some people don’t plan on getting vaccinated, but get vaccinated. And they don’t know where to get vaccinated or how to get vaccinated, but they were just vaccinated because they just so happened to be in a specific place at a specific time.
“It’s really comforting when I tell people, okay, if you’re not comfortable with making an appointment drive around in the city, one day, you’re gonna run into a couple of places. If you decide to stop, walk-ins are available.”
Not all encounters go so well.
He’s been called the devil and told he’s killing his own people.
“Sometimes you’re going to have conversations that put you in uncomfortable positions,” said Smith. “Sometimes you’re going to have conversations where you need to educate. Not necessarily trying to persuade or incentivize them, but just giving them the proper tools that they need to make the proper decisions. A lot of people think … they’re getting like poison stuck into them and they’re getting metal stuck into them. … Some people think that they may be allergic to the vaccine. They may have skepticisms, doubts. Being able to clarify a lot of those questions and concerns, it just makes a lot of people feel more comfortable talking to me or talking to someone who is familiar with the process.”
Smith was vaccinated along with other healthcare workers several months ago. Before then, he said he took every precaution because he wanted to protect his grandparents, who are in their 60s. Keeping them safe was part of his motivation to educate others about COVID.
The world had not seen a pandemic in 100 years and Smith, a history major at Buffalo State, said he appreciates the magnitude of the times in which he’s living. When he’s his grandparents’ age, what does he want to remember about his 22-year-old self?
“I want to just be able to look back and say, I made a difference. I made a valuable difference.
As for now, “Everything that I want to do in life is to give back to those who didn’t have the things that I didn’t have growing up,” he said.
“So who I am is who I am. And that’s why I find myself in the position I am right now spending my days walking the streets of Rochester, informing people and getting vaccines.
“Hopefully, someone will listen to me.”