The Department of State of Health Services (DSHS) and the Texas A&M University Health Science Center are partnering to increase the number of fully vaccinated people in Texas, awarding more than $8.6 million to local organizations across the state to promote COVID-19 vaccine outreach and education activities.
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DSHS and Texas A&M Health announced the first round of Texas Vaccine Outreach and Education Program grants in mid-December. Olga Rodriguez, chief of staff and associate vice president of Texas A&M Health, said they had received a diverse array of applications from over 190 organizations across the state.
These organizations included grassroots community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, those who serve rural and immigrant populations, university institutions, and others. Priority for the first round of funding was given to organizations focusing on outreach to rural communities, Texans with disabilities, and communities of color.
DSHS and Texas A&M Health announced the opening of the second round of funding on Jan. 3, this time prioritizing organizations focusing on children, Tribal Nations, and counties in Texas with the lowest vaccination rates.
Rodriguez said grant opportunities like this are critical in Texas right now due to low vaccination rates in counties such as Bell, Bowie, Ector, Grayson, Jefferson, Johnson, McLennan, Parker, Tom Green, and Wichita. She believes messaging from local organizations is the most effective way to communicate with these communities regarding vaccines.
“There have been numerous messaging [efforts] at the federal level, numerous messaging [efforts] at the state level, but there are some communities [where] you still see a low vaccination rate … What we have seen is that local messaging, local voices, local events, is what [really works]. In terms of Texas, what seems to work the most is when there’s local messaging by trusted leaders when it comes to vaccination efforts.
And when I say trusted leaders, it might not be health care leaders, it might not be their local health department, it might be the local business, it might be their pastor, it might be their Lions Club. So there’s trusted voices in the community. Each community has to decide who’s the most influential messenger in their community, and what the messaging is that resonates most with them.”
In a statement for State of Reform, DSHS said community-based organizations were critical to communicating important information related to vaccines.
“COVID-19 vaccination data collected by DSHS and the federal government can clearly pinpoint those regions, cities and communities that have a lower uptake of vaccine, allowing DSHS and our partners to more effectively communicate directly to those residents with our messages. This grant opportunity provides community-based organizations the chance to communicate directly with their clients, constituents and neighbors about the importance of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
CBOs know their area better than any government agency can, and they also know where and how their residents consume information … Awardees can utilize multiple information platforms (online, print, social media, etc.) to convey their messages about the importance of vaccination … CBOs have their finger on the pulse of these areas and can be the trusted, local voices to deliver the message that COVID-19 vaccines safely prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death.”
Rodriguez said the grants will not just fund efforts to provide more information to address vaccine misinformation, but also on-the-ground efforts to personally connect with community members, as well as having close working relationships with vaccine providers to help community members get appointments quickly.
“Some of the proposals are recommending literally [going] door-to-door. Talking to [community members and their families] about [vaccinations], or very small community conversations to talk through that. And so it is about how I relate to you, and how you relate to me … We know that Texans really want to be able to act based on what they think is right, and what they think is best for them and their families and their community.”
Rodriguez said Texas A&M Health and DSHS will be looking for regionalized messaging for targeted populations in proposals for this second round of funding.
“It should be very specific to the group that you’re trying to target. For example, in round one, we [targeted] the blind and visually-impaired community, and we learned a lot about how you do messaging for the blind and visually-impaired that is very unique to that population.
So that’s what we expect. Does [the messaging] depend geographically where they are in the state? Does it depend on historical issues that communities have dealt with related to vaccination issues and [children]? We’re looking at the tailored approach. So if you submit a generic application on vaccinations and … a bunch of CDC and state flyers, that’s not what we’re looking for.”
DSHS and Texas A&M Health have not announced plans for further rounds of funding.