Georgia's Senator Jon Ossoff (D) toured the Albany Area Primary Health Care’s Mass Vaccination Center in Albany, Georgia on March 31, 2021 – a month and a half after the first vaccination event took place on the MLK Day. (Photo: Albany Area Primary Health Care's Twitter)

It didn’t take long for the Albany Area Primary Health Center (AAPHC) to figure out they weren’t going to be able to go at it alone when it came to vaccinating Albany, Georgia, residents.

Shelley Spires, chief executive officer of AAPHC, said after a mass vaccination event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the health center knew they needed more of everything – more space, more volunteers, and more vaccines. Four hundred people showed up during that first event in the city of about 74,000, leaving AAPHC staffers with a new sense of how big the task before them was.

“We realized pretty quickly, it’s going to take more than just us to help with this pandemic,” she said.

Since 1979, AAPHC has provided health services to Southwest Georgia. Now the group provides health care to residents in Baker, Calhoun, Colquitt, Crisp, Dooly, Dougherty, Lee, Terrell, and Thomas counties in 20 locations. The nine-county region comprises four nonmetropolitan counties and five counties that are part of small metropolitan areas. Nearly 40% of the quarter-million residents in the region live in what the Census defines as rural areas. 

Dougherty County was an early trouble spot for the coronavirus. The county’s infection rate spiked initially in April 2020 and then declined, months before infections had reached similar levels in other parts of the U.S. The initial wave of hard-hit counties around the country in early 2020 included locations with meat-packing plants, prisons, Indigenous populations, and African-American residents, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. Two-thirds of Dougherty County’s residents are African American.

Dougherty County experienced a second wave of infections, along with the rest of the nation, in January 2021. In recent weeks, Dougherty County has averaged only about three new cases a day. 

Within days of the start of the vaccination drive, Spires said, the health center had partnered with the Phoebe Putney Health System for additional space, joined with the community health department for more vaccines, and tapped the community at large for more volunteers. 

Phoebe opened up space in one of their buildings allowing AAPHC to start a mass vaccination center in East Albany, vaccinating upwards of 500 community members a day. AAPHC also partnered with the hospital and with the Department of Public Health to ensure that enough vaccinations were available to meet the needs of the community.

“We are so appreciative of Phoebe Putney Health System for giving us this space in their Phoebe East building,” Spires said. “Whenever we can partner together, as one medical community all working together, we can best serve our residents across Southwest Georgia.”

As one of only three centers in Southwest Georgia, AAPHC was able to quickly ramp up their vaccination processes to get shots in arms as fast as possible.

After that, all they needed was labor, Spires said.

“For us to be able to provide preventative care and do the things that we do, on a daily basis, we could not run a mass vaccination clinic,” she said. “So we reached out to community volunteers to staff the clinic… From greeting to filling out paperwork… to giving the vaccines, we had retired physicians, retired anesthesiologists, retired urologists, retired cardiologists actually help administer those vaccines.”

The health center also partnered with the local school district. Dougherty County School System let AAPHC use the Monroe High School gymnasium to hold pop-up vaccination events, bringing the vaccines directly to the communities that needed them.

Since those initial vaccine events, AAPHC has administered more than 12,000 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. On May 25, AAPHC officially closed its Mass Vaccination Center, but area residents are still available for community members at the centers’ Vienna, Edison and Albany offices.

Despite the efforts, only 13.5% of Dougherty County residents have completed Covid-19 vaccinations, according to July 15 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s one of the lowest county vaccination rates in the U.S. Dougherty’s rate could be higher depending on a number of factors, according to health officials the Daily Yonder has interviewed throughout the course of national vaccination efforts. First, about 18,000 vaccinations in Georgia have not been assigned to a specific county. People from Dougherty County in that statewide list aren’t included in the county data. Private businesses like pharmacies aren’t necessarily reporting their vaccination data to the CDC. And some officials have said CDC data lags actual vaccinations significantly.

Despite the low CDC numbers, the partnership garnered much attention, county officials said.

“We’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish as one of Georgia’s largest Community Health Centers,” Spires said in May.  “We’ve had other groups, some from California, call and ask for advice on setting up Mass Vaccination Centers.  It’s rare that a medical group could scale-up such a program so quickly.”

And the partnerships between the organizations are still going strong.

As the vaccination efforts now center more on children 12-17, Phoebe brings its mobile units to the parking lots of AAPHC’s pediatric offices to administer vaccines to kids. And on June 26, the community pulled together again for another mass vaccination effort where Phoebe brought its mobile unit to the Monroe High School Gymnasium to help with the vaccination effort.

The experience was more than just bringing people together, Ronda Arline, AAPHC’s Director of Nursing said. It was a learning experience.

“Not only did we get the opportunity to work with these retired professionals, but we were able to impart their knowledge on the staff there,” Arline said.

Spires said the health center would continue to put its community at the center of its mission moving forward.

“Albany Area Primary Health Care remains committed to vaccinating as many of our community members as possible,” she said.  “Our organization has personally seen how devastating this pandemic has been for our community and our entire region of Southwest Georgia.  We want to protect as many of our community members as possible from this virus.”