OPINION: How volunteers in one Ga. county are using campaign tools for vaccinations

Cuthbert is the county seat of Randolph County, one of the Georgia counties most vulnerable to natural disasters, according to analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. Hurricane Michael underscored how some Georgia communities have crucial gaps in their ability to withstand severe storms. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Cuthbert is the county seat of Randolph County, one of the Georgia counties most vulnerable to natural disasters, according to analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. Hurricane Michael underscored how some Georgia communities have crucial gaps in their ability to withstand severe storms. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Gov. Brian Kemp called on Georgia health care providers last week to “think outside the box” to tackle the state’s last-in-the-nation COVID-19 vaccination rates.

But in Randolph County, Ga., a group of political volunteers is using the same box they built to get out the vote in the November elections to get Randolph residents vaccinated against the deadly virus instead.

Between door-knocking, literature drops, and follow-up phone calls, the tools are exactly the same. But instead of winning an election, they’re trying to save lives.

“During the 2020 election, we had a real push to get the turnout that we did,” Bobby Jenkins told me on a recent visit to Cuthbert, Ga. in Randolph County. “This area is rural and poor, and we found that going door to door, reaching out to people, works best.”

Jenkins was chairman of the Randolph County Democratic Committee during the 2020 election and the 2021 Senate runoffs, when Democrats carried the county of about 6,700 with one of the highest turnout rates in the state.

He also worked alongside Joyce Barlow, a Registered Nurse and small business owner and Democrat who ran against state Rep. Gerald Greene, R-Cuthbert, to mount the get-out-the-vote operation in the county.

Barlow didn’t win, but she learned the details of GOTV efforts. They hired canvassers and went door-to-door, asking people if they’d registered to vote, whether they planned to vote on Election Day, and if they needed help getting to the polls.

After the elections came and went, Jenkins and Barlow also watched as COVID-19 continued to ravage the area, including Randolph County.

Earlier last spring, the county had the highest rate of infections per 100,000 residents anywhere in the state. In October, the local hospital closed its doors, after years of financial struggles.

When the COVID vaccines became available, Jenkins and Barlow worried the population in Randolph County, one-third of whom live in poverty, would struggle to register with the health department when so many people have no computer, let alone Internet access.

But they’d just finished a major canvassing and outreach effort for the elections. What if they did the same thing to get people to register for vaccines?

Unlike the obscene $800 million dumped into the Georgia runoff campaigns, their new “Neighbor 2 Neighbor” project is non-partisan, non-profit, and low-budget. About $2,500 has gone to pay for flyers and a part-time canvasser, with volunteer hours doing the rest.

Pamela Kirkland of the West Central Health District for the Department of Public Health said the main challenge in the area is getting people in remote areas scheduled and in the office for appointments.

“We are grateful that they are able to do this,” she said of Jenkins and Barlow.

I joined them and Karen Johnson, a canvasser, on Monday afternoon as they walked along a dusty highway just outside of Cuthbert to knock on doors. .

One by one, they approached the houses lining the side of the road to find seniors who had not yet been vaccinated.

Barlow knocked on the door of a tidy shotgun house. When a man answered, she stood back and asked if he’s gotten the COVID vaccine.

“I got the first one,” he said.

“But what about your sister?” Jenkins asked. He knew the man and his sister. In a small town like Cuthbert, people know each other and their families, too.

A few doors down, an elderly couple answered.

“Have you been vaccinated?” Barlow asked Marjorie Bouyer, who shook her head no. “Would you like us to sign you up? We want to keep you safe.”

Both Bouyer and her husband, Charlie, were happy to get the vaccine, but without computers, or even email addresses, they weren’t sure how to go about it.

Joyce entered their information on the health department’s website and told them to expect a call from health officials in five to seven days to schedule their appointments. “Be sure you answer the phone,” she said.

The final stop was the One Stop, a convenience store that sells mostly gas, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

As Barlow talked to the man behind the counter, a woman playing video lottery overheard the conversation.

“Are y’all doing the vaccine?” Barbara Karlson asked. “Can I sign up?”

Karlson explained that she went to the health department several weeks ago, but at 59 years old, she wasn’t eligible at the time. She left her name on a list to be contacted, but even with a chronic lung condition, she never heard back.

“These people fall into all the cracks there are to fall into,” Jenkins said.

Just one person turned down the chance to sign up, a man outside the One Stop whose brother died from COVID last year.

“I’m a registered nurse and I’m trying to save lives,” Barlow told him. “And I’m trying to save your life.”

Since the pandemic began, the county has recorded 459 cases and 32 deaths. Everybody in Cuthbert seems to have lost somebody.

But on Monday, Jenkins, Barlow, and Johnson signed up three people for the vaccine that could save their lives. Overall they’ve reached more than 400.

They say they’ll keep going door to door until every senior in the county is signed up, and as younger, but still vulnerable residents become eligible.

This is their campaign now.

What if all political leaders in Georgia thought outside of the box like that?

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