Grant helps Grand Forks Public Health work on improving COVID-19 health equity

GRAND FORKS – Since receiving a health equity grant last June, Grand Forks Public Health has been working on health equity activities to improve COVID-19 vaccination rates among specific populations in the community.

The $125,000 grant, awarded by the North Dakota Department of Health, requires development of a health equity plan, cultural competency training for personnel and an effort to address health equity across all public health programs. The grant period will end in June of 2023.

GFPH’s 2021-2023 Health Equity Strategic Plan addresses these requirements through five goals, each with various objectives. Some of the objectives include:

  • Utilizing survey data and community engagement to address COVID-19 vaccine misinformation;
  • using barrier reduction efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates;
  • and partnering with Altru Health, along with other community partners, to conduct community focus groups.

The specific populations considered for the plan include racial and sexual/gender minority groups, people with disabilities, people born outside of the U.S., people with substance use disorders and people experiencing homelessness or income inequality.
GFPH Director Debbie Swanson said the strategic plan is meant to serve as a guide, since some of the objectives within the plan may not be accomplished by the end of the grant period.

“It’s meant to be aspirational,” Swanson said. “These are things that we strive for.”

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Swanson said the funding will further help establish relationships with specific groups in the community.

GFPH has partnered with the New American Integration Center to hold vaccination clinics specifically targeted for people in the community who don’t speak English. GFPH also has made a series of videos translated into other languages.

There also have been educational initiatives for some community groups on COVID-19 protections, such as wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing.

One of the objectives within the plan was to reach a target of 75% of the entire Grand Forks population to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 through ongoing barrier reduction efforts. Swanson said that target hasn’t been reached, but the result probably is more about vaccine hesitancy than barriers to receiving the vaccine.

Swanson said there is vaccine hesitancy, especially among 20- to 29-year-olds, with GFPH working on communication for that age group. GFPH is also working on education with parents, since there hasn’t been a vaccine uptick in children aged 5-11 as GFPH hoped there would be.

Swanson said there has been a slight increase in vaccine acceptance.

“We are operating our clinic Tuesday-Friday and we continue to see people presenting for their first and second doses as well as booster doses,” Swanson said. “However, we would really like to see more people take advantage of the opportunity to be vaccinated because that’s really going to be our best success to reducing COVID and reducing the health inequity that can occur as a result of it.”

Last summer, GFPH made an effort to ensure everyone in Grand Forks county had access to the COVID-19 vaccine by having vaccination clinics within walking distance for 95% of residents.

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“That way we knew we were in the communities where there might be high need and people may not have transportation to get to a vaccination clinic, but this way they could walk to one,” Swanson said.

GFPH’s work on accessible COVID-19 vaccination clinics is still ongoing at the Grand Cities Mall vaccination site, which is accessible by bus.

At present, Swanson said GFPH is focusing on COVID-19 testing and distributing at-home test kits, which wasn’t initially in the health equity plan. She said the “opportunity just arose last week.”

“We started with making sure that we reach groups with home test kits that we thought might not have had opportunities for testing before,” Swanson said.

These groups would include people with chronic mental illnesses, developmental or intellectual disabilities and those experiencing poverty and homelessness. As the target groups increasingly have access to at-home test kits, Swanson said GFPH is now distributing test kits to the general public.

GFPH also plans to focus on relationship building and listening to the community on residents’ needs.

The grant period will end next year, but Swanson said GFPH is always working on health equity.

“It’s easy to incorporate this work into our daily activities as we go about our work, whether it be immunizations or HIV testing or the Women’s Way Program. We can be looking at everything through a health equity lens,” Swanson said.

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Among Swanson’s concerns: Engaging people at the grassroots level once the grant period is over, since it is “such important work.” She said GFPH will always be seeking opportunities for funding on that end.