Vendors line the parking lot of Mt. Carmel Christian Church, around seven miles outside of Irvine, Kentucky. (Photo by Liz Carey)

Mary Puckett doesn’t get around much by herself anymore, but she is able to drive a few miles down the road she lives on to get to Mt. Carmel Christian Church.

There, on November 5, at the church along the tree-lined, two-lane country road, about 7 miles outside of Irvine, Kentucky, more than a dozen organizations lined the church’s parking lot with tables, ready to help residents with their health issues and answer questions.

Standing at the first of nearly two dozen tables, Puckett, an 86-year-old lifelong resident of Estill County, Kentucky, said she thought the event would help her.

“I’ve been having a lot of problems lately, I thought maybe I might need it,” she said.

The event was part of the Appalachian Community Health Days held throughout 32 counties in eastern Kentucky and parts of West Virginia. Put on by the University of Kentucky Center of Excellence in Rural Health’s (UK CERH) along with several partner organizations, the event brings health screenings and vaccinations to rural residents where they live.

The events screen attendees for high blood pressure, A1c, heart attack and stroke risk, and, most importantly, Covid-19. Volunteers at the event can also vaccinate attendees against the flu and Covid.

And, Puckett said, the event would appeal to others her age, if they could get there.

“There’s three or four (women at the church) that I’m real good friends with and we’re all kind of under the weather,” she said. “If they are able, I’d say they’ll probably come too.”

For Puckett, an announcement from her preacher led her to the event. Her grandson usually drives her to and from appointments and places, she said, but with the event being so close by, she thought it would be easy for her to get to it on her own.

Already vaccinated against Covid, Puckett said she hoped to get her booster shot. Volunteers immediately told her they’d take care of that for her. Making her way down the line of tables, she said she looked forward to whatever the volunteers had in store for her.

“I have no idea what they’re going to test, but whatever it is, I’m guessing I’ll get it,” she said.

Michaela Williams, a rural outreach coordinator for UK CERH, said more than 20 people attended the Estill County event. Of those who attended, 7 got their Covid booster shot, two got flu shots and one got their first Covid-19 vaccine shot. For a community event in a remote part of the county, it was a success, she said.

“Our primary objective is to vaccinate people against Covid,” Williams said. “We are just in a really good position to bring all of this… in to these remote areas.”

So far, over the course of the more than 45 events since August, Williams said, some 200 residents have received the Covid-19 vaccine. At the same time, volunteers have provided more than 1,000 health screenings, she said.

“A lot of people are coming out to these events to get their (Covid-19 vaccination) boosters,” she said. “We’re also seeing people come to get their flu shots.”

By bringing the vaccinations to the people, the events increase the likelihood these rural residents get vaccinated, she said.

“Especially in these remote areas where we’re from, transportation is a huge issue,” she said. “A lot of people only go out once a month. They go to the doctor and the grocery store, and then they go back home. I think it’s a lot easier to convince people to get vaccinated, and to get these screenings,… by bringing it to them. It’s a lot easier to go five minutes down the road instead of going 25 minutes into town.”

In addition to being convenient, the events provide incentives to get vaccinated. For attendees who get either their first or second Covid vaccination shot, there’s a $25 gift card. For those that show proof of vaccination against Covid, there’s a free t-shirt. And for everyone who registers, Williams said, their name is entered into a drawing for either an Instapot or a Fitbit.

The events also give rural residents the opportunity to talk to community health workers about what’s available to them locally. Volunteers at this event, from organizations like Estill Medical Clinic, PSC and Kentucky Rural Health Information Organization, were on hand to help connect the local residents to local health and social services organizations. Some volunteers were even available to help attendees with things like filling out insurance applications, finding free or low-cost medications or getting free eye exams and glasses.

Having that local representation has been key to the event’s success, Williams said.

“I think part of what’s made this so successful is that we do have people who are from these counties,” she said. “We’re from Hazard. We don’t know anybody really in Estill County or Wayne County. But we have these community health workers out here who are in their communities every day. People know them and people trust them.”

Funded by a $3.3 million grant from the U.S. Health Resources Services Administration, the events provide access to health care the residents may not have otherwise gotten. By 2022, the UK CERH, along with Kentucky Homeplace, USA Drone Port and a number of local community organizations, will have held more than 90 such events across the region.

“This grant will enable us to go to where people need us most,” Fran Feltner, DNP, director of the UK CERH and principal investigator of Kentucky Homeplace, said in a statement. “Leveraging the expertise of community health workers and our many valued community partners, our intent is to meet people where they are to work through barriers, alleviate fears, dispel myths, educate and assess any needs people may have that could be holding them back from being vaccinated.”

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