Volunteers came together to help with a vaccination drive in Kinston, North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of the City of Kinston)

The city of Kinston, North Carolina, has achieved an above-average vaccination rate by making vaccine access just one part of larger community-service efforts, according to Mayor Don Hardy.

Kinston (pop. 22,000) is the county seat of Lenoir (pop. 55,000), a rural county about an hour from the North Carolina coast. The city is about two-thirds African American. The county is comprised of about 40% African American residents.

The pandemic, Hardy said, hit Kinston hard.

“We knew people were struggling,” he said. “Some folks were out of work and food really became an issue. But we knew there was a need for testing and vaccinations as well.”

So Hardy decided to tackle three problems at once. Using the city-owned Grainger Stadium, the home ballpark for the Down East Wood Ducks minor league baseball team, Hardy worked with other leaders to provide a “one-stop shop” for vaccinations, testing, and food distribution.

“We had to come up with creative ways to get (the vaccines) to them,” he said. “I wanted to take away the excuse ‘I couldn’t get access to it.’ And by providing them with the boxes of food, we knew we had a way to draw them in.”

Hardy said community businesses rallied to the cause as well. Moen, the sink and faucet manufacturer, which has a distribution center of Kinston, provided volunteers to help with the vaccination/food distribution efforts and sent tractor trailers to pick up food for distribution, he said.

“Our businesses have provided resources, food, gift cards,… some have even provided hot meals as a draw to get people in to get the vaccines,” he said. “The business community has really gotten involved in helping to make this a success.”

For Moen, it was an opportunity to help Kinston and surrounding areas..

“We were very excited for the opportunity for Moen to partner with the city of Kinston to sponsor a Covid-19 vaccination event for the community,” Aimie Schramm, director of employee communications for Moen, said in an email statement. “In addition to supporting this important public health initiative with a donation and transportation equipment, more than 20 associates [Moen employees] were happy to volunteer their time at the event to make sure it ran smoothly and served as many people as possible.”

The company said it encourages its employees and the rest of the community to get the vaccine.

The clinics have been so successful that residents from other cities in the county are coming to Kinston to get vaccinated, Hardy said. 

As of August 2, 40% of the Lenoir County population are fully vaccinated, and 43% are partially vaccinated, according to the North Carolina Department of Health.  That puts the county well ahead of the statewide rural vaccination rate of 34.8%. Lenoir County ranks 18th among the state’s 54 nonmetropolitan counties for vaccination rates.

Nationally, 36.2% of the nation’s rural residents are fully vaccinated. The metropolitan rate was 47.3%.

Hardy said he won’t feel comfortable until at least 50% of the residents in his city are fully vaccinated. That will require an additional 5,600 residents to complete vaccination. The CDC reports that 486 people in Lenoir County initiated vaccination in the week ending August 2.

Now, Hardy said, the focus has shifted. Those who are willing to get the vaccines, have gotten it, he said. 

“Whenever I hear people say I’m not going to get this [vaccination], I let them know that the vaccine will help get them and our community through this trying time and get back to some semblance of normal,” he said.

With infections from the Delta variant of Covid-19 rising across the state, Hardy said he’ll go door-to-door if he has to.

“We want to canvass every area we can, especially in those areas that are most distressed according to the census tract,” he said. “The real conversations with those people will be about how can we help them get the vaccine.”

To eliminate more barriers, Lenoir County Transit is offering free rides to vaccine clinics.

Other vaccination efforts are ongoing, including more food box giveaways, he said. One recent clinic included vaccines plus registration for pre-kindergarten, a job fair to hire school employees, Covid testing, and volunteers helping to connect residents with resources to pay for past-due utilities and rent. About 50 people showed up for that event.

Volunteers will work with residents to schedule appointments, provide rides, or arrange for a health-care provider to administer the vaccine in peoples’ homes.