OhioHealth is getting the community vaccinated with mobile clinic

Tim Feran
For Columbus CEO
OhioHealth staff with the Mobile Vaccine Clinic (Photo by Rob Hardin)

As the largest public health crisis in a century, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced medical professionals to react in innovative ways, even as the virus has exposed long-standing problems in our health care system.

In central Ohio, as elsewhere, one of those problems has been the inequity of care among demographic groups, particularly among communities of color. To take one startling example: During February 2021, the first month of OhioHealth’s Community COVID-19 Vaccine Clinics, 88 percent of first dose vaccines went to white patients even though approximately 59 percent of the population is white. And even the number of appointments for vaccinations was disproportionately booked by white people.

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That data immediately caught the attention of OhioHealth officials.

“We followed the data and we realized there was an opportunity to serve, to meet the need,” says Karen Morrison, president of the OhioHealth Foundation and senior vice president of external affairs at OhioHealth. “Because we had the resources, and community partners reached out to us as well, it was only a matter of days before we began to respond.”

OhioHealth activated its mobile clinics—in operation since 1993 beginning with prenatal care at high schools—and took them directly to underserved neighborhoods, not only to provide easy access to vaccinations but, crucially, education about the virus and the health system’s response to it. The mobile clinic is winner of Columbus CEO's 2022 Healthcare Achievement Awards Healthcare Trailblazer award for organizations.

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“The thing that made us good is that the team is not only clinically capable but culturally competent, able to meet people where they are,” Morrison says. “That was very effective with populations who typically have issues of trust and other hesitancies.”

The mobile unit hosts four weekly clinics and one weekend clinic every month, traveling to 33 locations within local communities of color.

As a nonprofit, OhioHealth has leveraged its own resources in the effort and received federal funds to help with the vaccination clinics. “So there’s no charge,” Morrison said.

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Partnering with community organizations has been a key element of the mobile unit’s success. Alongside more than 33 partners, such as Franklin County, YMCA of Central Ohio, Urban League, IMPACT Community Action, Ohio Women’s Alliance and Pickerington Local School District, teams of pharmacists, nurses and community health workers have one-on-one conversations with residents. Translators in several languages are also available.

The approach has been incredibly effective, says Sonia Booker, a nurse who has been with the mobile clinics since they began more than 25 years ago.

“We went from a baseline of 11.3 percent [of the underserved population being vaccinated in February] to 23.3 percent by May,” she says. “It was so rewarding. We couldn’t keep up with demand. We had 60 appointments every Wednesday—it was furious and fast.”

A Saturday “mega-clinic” at the Urban League almost overwhelmed the mobile team.

“They probably had seven tents put up and we gave 215 vaccinations,” Booker says.

“Once they saw the mobile unit set up, people just walked up,” Morrison says. “I saw people filled with excitement and gratitude.”

In the effort to reach as many people as possible, the mobile unit travels widely—“we went all the way to the Circleville Pumpkin Show,” Booker says. “We’ve been at a Halloween drive through in Whitehall. We’re not worried about only a few people getting vaccinated there. Our appearance says we care. We intentionally go to the underserved, to people who don’t have access.”

A full year after the first mobile unit went out with vaccines, “our target now is closing the gap,” Booker says. “In the month of January, we had 252 patients vaccinated. That’s good for a winter month.”

Despite the ongoing success, there remain some surprising gaps, she says.

“We want more people to get vaccinated because, believe it or not, we are still getting people their first and second doses,” Booker says. “It’s interesting how people are still hesitant to get vaccinated—and that there are still people not getting the right messaging. It helps when they have a trusted nurse, a pharmacist, a resource in front of them.”

And it is trust that will be the ultimate key to defeating COVID-19 among underserved communities, Morrison says.

“It’s people like Sonia—her brilliant smile and energy—and the team and the partnerships in the community that make the difference,” Morrison says. “We don’t just drive around and drop down. We are welcomed in the neighborhood.”

Tim Feran is a freelance writer.

OhioHealth Community Mobile Vaccine Project

Mobile units staffed by the community outreach team that allow OhioHealth to travel to communities and neighborhoods to provide education and easy access to vaccinations.

Founded: OhioHealth has been providing mobile health services since 1993 and began the Community Mobile Vaccine Project in 2021. 

Top Officer: Karen Morrison

Features: The mobile vaccine clinic was implemented through a multifaceted team including community health, medical education, pharmacy, real estate, legal, compliance and revenue cycle. It established new clinic locations to improve access to communities of color and other neighborhoods in need. The mobile clinic uses existing Wellness on Wheels Mobile Units to increase flexibility and access.