Southern New Jersey Equitable Approach to Overcoming the Pandemic
At 9:00 am on a Wednesday in March 2021, the COVID-19 Vaccination Team at Southern Jersey Family Medical Centers (SJFMC) provided the first doses of the Moderna vaccine at Burlington City High School. About 50 recently eligible Burlington City teachers and school district staff, anxious to get their first armor of protection, lined up to receive their shot. The overall feeling among those in attendance was gratitude for the federally qualified health center sitting right in their backyard across from the high school campus.
“It is critical for our staff to get vaccinated so we can ensure the safest environment for our students. The clinic visit was well-planned and seamless. Our staff was in and out after receiving their vaccination and being observed. We are truly thankful for Southern Jersey Family Medical Centers helping to enrich the lives in our community,” said Burlington City High School Principal Jim Flynn.
It’s a scene that the SJFMC COVID-19 Vaccination Team repeats daily, with multiple vaccination clinics scheduled at 6 of 8 health centers. The program that started on December 29, 2020, at the Burlington City office with one vaccinator has now grown to help residents in the three-county region of Atlantic, Burlington, Salem, and beyond. In three months, SJFMC has administered more than 14,000 vaccines to New Jersey residents and others who work in the state. This despite receiving a limited vaccine supply.
The Health Center Goes to Neighborhoods and Farm Fields
SJFMC provides on-site vaccinations and community outreach to serve populations at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 due to pre-existing conditions, economic and environmental factors. In March, the COVID-19 Vaccination Team held a clinic at an Atlantic City public housing complex for seniors, vaccinating almost 100 residents right where they live. One Atlantic City senior resident tried unsuccessfully for months to get on a vaccine list, despite being a member of one of the first eligibility groups.
“I was wondering why someone would not come to a building where seniors live. You guys are heroes among people. You don’t know if we have COVID-19 or not. You take your lives into your own hands to protect others. I am feeling safer today because of you all,” the resident said.
SJFMC, a community-based healthcare provider, serves more than 50,000 residents—most with lower incomes—in largely rural regions and is essential in ensuring equitable distribution of the vaccine. SJFMC receives vaccine supply from the New Jersey Department of Health and is now one of 7 health centers in the state selected to get additional doses from the federal government. As a result, SJFMC can now put more shots in arms to help those most in need.
“We serve those who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and who would most likely lack access to care without us. Many don’t have the technology or computer skills necessary to sign up online, so we are going to them,” said the President and CEO of SJFMC, Linda Y. Flake. “Our reach into the communities of color and the rural communities we serve goes beyond our patient population and into the areas that need the help and want to be vaccinated. We are also educating the communities that are on the fence and not sure about vaccination. It’s a multi-faceted approach.”
Last summer, the SJFMC Migrant Outreach Team, typically responsible for providing care and resources for agricultural workers during the migrant season, was critical in protecting farmworkers after COVID-19 outbreaks on local farms. The Migrant Outreach Team set up field sites and tested more than 3,500 workers at 119 farms throughout five South Jersey counties. It’s the same “boots on the ground” approach that is being mobilized once again for vaccinations.
This time, the goal is to get many of those same migrant and seasonal farmworkers vaccinated against COVID-19. Since farmworkers often travel the Eastern gulf stream from Florida to Maine and are in each area for a short time, the team plans to vaccinate about 4,000 farmworkers with Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine, which eliminates the need for second doses.
Flake said, “It’s a huge undertaking, but we must protect our farmworkers, our patients, and our community at large. Our team is extremely committed and working very hard on this essential program.”
A community health center is taking the steps needed to bring the community closer to immunity, by ensuring the lifesaving vaccine is distributed equitably.
“Our community depends on us, and they trust us,” Flake said of the people of color her health center primarily serves. “We’re the community providers and, as such, we have a responsibility that we simply must fulfill. It can be a matter of life or death. This virus is a killer.”
This story was written and submitted by Southern Jersey Family Medical Centers.
Southern Jersey Family Medical Centers (SJFMC), a federally qualified community health center, has provided primary healthcare services to local South Jersey communities for 44 years. With eight healthcare centers in Burlington, Salem, and Atlantic counties, SJFMC is the region’s premier source for high-quality healthcare that reduces financial and cultural barriers to meet the needs of the community. SJFMC serves more than 53,000 patients, generating approximately 160,000 patient visits annually. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, SJFMC has tested almost 20,500 people for COVID-19 and vaccinated nearly 11,000 and counting.