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United Way Announces $1 Million Donation to Boost Vaccine Education, Outreach

Patti Singer

Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health. Provided photo

Mass vaccination sites served their purpose – getting COVID-19 vaccine in a matter of hours to scores of eager people.

Now the strategy has changed. Instead of having people come to the vaccine, the vaccine is going in search of people – into what Wade Norwood called nooks and crannies of neighborhoods.

“Just because we’ve reached 70% (vaccination rate) overall, our job is far from over,” said Norwood, the chief executive officer of Common Ground Health and co-chair of the Finger Lakes Vaccine Task Force.

“When we look more deeply into our local vaccination data, when we start unpeeling the onion, we find that at every layer there is a more complex story and it makes us want to cry,” he said. “As often is the case with health indicators, averages mask great disparities.”

Data from the state Department of Health show that affluent suburbs have a vaccination rate approaching 80% while low-income urban rural areas have a rate that may not reach 40% for people with at least one dose.

ZIP codes that encompass southeast Rochester and Brighton, Brighton and Penfield, Penfield, Fairport, Pittsford and downtown Rochester have rates ranging from 70% to 81%. City ZIPs such as 14614, 14621 and 14611 are below 40%. Rural communities such as Brockport and Hamlin are not at 50%.

Norwood said vaccination lags among migrant, refugee and deaf residents.

An infusion of $1 million in private donations and information from interviews with more than 200 people will enhance efforts at equity.

The United Way of Greater Rochester announced in late June that it had raised $1 million from six private companies and non-profits, including its own contributions. The money will fund vaccine ambassadors going door-to-door and answer questions, social and traditional media announcements and hosting block parties.

“It’s not doing direct vaccination work,” said Jaime Saunders, president and CEO of the United Way. “This is really about outreach, education and increasing access.”

Government – in the form of tax dollars – pays for the vaccine. But those funds are limited when it comes to promotion.

“Private dollars are fast and flexible,” Saunders said. “That is not typically possible with the public spend. You have to be responsible to the taxpayer.”

The United Way amassed the million in about two weeks from its own donation and contributions from ESL Federal Credit Union, Wegmans Food Markets, Paychex, Greater Rochester Health Foundation and Konar Foundation.

The funds will put trusted messengers into communities where people, for whatever reason, have not been vaccinated.

“We learned one size does not fit all,” said Norwood, who credited Dr. Nancy Bennett, his co-chair on the task force, with helping him overcome hesitancy about the vaccine.

“I did not start off at yes,” he said.

Norwood said people need to have their concerns heard by someone they trust and shares their journey. “We need to provide voices to support them. We can help people get to yes.”