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Health disparity grant supports COVID-19 initiatives, outreach for at-risk populations

A quartet of partners – powered by a $6.6 million grant – are “helping marginalized populations make informed and intelligent decisions about their health.”

So says Cassandra Brown, the administrator of the federal grant that Shelby County government received during the last quarter of 2021 as a designated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) special COVID-19 initiative to help at-risk communities understand the importance of vaccination and testing.

The other partners are Leadership Memphis, the University of Memphis, and LeMoyne-Owen College.

Cassandra Brown (Photo: Facebook)

“We spent the whole month of December last year training our counselors,” said Brown. “We wanted to give everyone an opportunity to ask questions about any aspects of COVID-19 they desire.”

With COVID-19 cases on the decline, the Shelby County Health Department continues to reinforce this message: when issues of misinformation and fear are met head-on, sound, responsible decisions can be made to ensure an individual’s health.

“I think the success of our efforts will depend largely on community outreach,” said Brown. “That is why are so excited about teaming up with our partners: Leadership Memphis, the University of Memphis, and LeMoyne Owen College. Our next step is training students on college campuses to talk to fellow students about taking the vaccination.”

Brown said peer counselors tend to engender trust.

Leadership Memphis extended outreach through a “Sleeves Up” campaign event on Jan. 15.

“We hosted our first Family Health and Wellness Day on MLK weekend,” said Leadership Memphis President and CEO Reggie Crenshaw. “We have for years hosted the MLK Volunteer Service Day on Monday. Saturday before the holiday in 2022, Leadership Memphis partnered with Shelby County to set up free vaccine programs in three communities.”

Reggie Crenshaw (Courtesy photo)

Crenshaw said more than 100 people were vaccinated at three locations: Hickory Hill Community Center, Hollywood Community Center and Baptist Women’s Health Center.

“That weekend was a Sleeves Up Shelby County initiative to address vaccine hesitancy,” said Crenshaw. “People have been exposed to all kinds of misinformation about the vaccine that makes them fearful. Our volunteers answered questions and explained the benefits of taking the vaccine.”

Brown touted the Sleeves Up event as an excellent opportunity to interact with individuals between 16-44, the majority of whom have opted not to get the vaccine.

“From that Sleeves Up event, we have continued to go into churches, talk with pastors, community centers and any place we can,” said Brown.

“We have asked community leaders and others who are concerned to help us give people the right information and clear up rumors about taking the vaccine. The more people in Shelby County to get vaccinated, the safer we all are.”

Talk about health disparity issues generally revolve around race, said Brown.

“But the grant was given to benefit everyone who might be living on the outskirts. For instance, we are also reaching out to the county’s homeless population, as well as LGBT residents. Our efforts have been and will continue to be inclusive.”

Dr. Michelle Taylor took over as Health Department director on Aug. 2. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/TSD Archives)

Dr. Michelle Taylor, director of the Shelby County Health Department, applauded the efforts of Brown and her staff.

“Our goal is to engage and inform communities with low vaccination rates about the vaccine,” said Taylor. “Our staff is doing an excellent job helping those who have not been vaccinated understand that taking a vaccine is the most effective way of protecting loved ones from infection.

(For more information on COVID-19 vaccination and testing, call the health department at 901-222-9000.)

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