Boosting access to vaccines in Athens County: Ohio University’s health programs alleviate barriers

Published: November 28, 2023 Author: Samantha Pelham

Ohio University and Athens City-County Health Department are partnering to overcome a health challenge that has persisted since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: People just aren’t getting vaccinated. But in the Appalachian region in particular, some pressing obstacles remain.

“We are seeing a plateau in vaccination rates and even a decline in childhood vaccines since the beginning of COVID,” says Berkeley Franz, associate professor of Community-based Health and

Osteopathic Heritage Foundation Ralph S. Licklider, D.O. Endowed Faculty Fellow in Population Health Science. “Although some of that is related to misinformation about vaccines, we can’t deny the barriers facing many Americans that make it harder to access them, such as lack of information, health insurance or a reliable mode of transportation to get to clinics. In Appalachia in particular, we have structural barriers and economic limitations.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, countries worldwide have witnessed a surge in vaccine hesitancy, driven by both political views and personal concerns. Recognizing this challenge, the World Health Organization deems vaccinations a crucial global health issue. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), vaccinations significantly reduce disease and are the most effective way to prevent serious illnesses.

Yet, barriers beyond personal beliefs impede vaccine accessibility. Despite the economic significance of the University in the region, counties in Southeastern Ohio, including Athens County, remain among the state’s most impoverished, grappling with limited access to broadband, transportation and major health networks.

Franz emphasizes the existence of external obstacles, such as lack of information, health insurance, and reliable transportation to clinics, particularly in Appalachia, where structural and economic limitations prevail.

“When the COVID vaccine first came out it was free, whereas now it may cost money depending on a person’s insurance or where they are getting it from,” Franz says. This is where Ohio University has made a huge contribution, through offering mass vaccination clinics and ongoing vaccination programs through their mobile health clinics.”

Ohio University and Athens City-County Health Department saw the need for access in this area at the start of the pandemic and decided to partner to ensure that the citizens of this region were afforded the access to health care they deserved.

Chillicothe vaccination station
The Shoemaker Center at Ohio University's Chillicothe Campus was also temporarily converted into a COVID vaccination clinic, providing access to the Chillicothe area as well.

“In late December of 2020, the health department was actively looking for a place to administer our larger scale clinics,” Jack Pepper, an administrator with the Athens City-County Health Department, says. “We had several potential locations including the new Heritage Hall building. Dean Johnson arranged for us to take a tour and it was quickly decided that it was the best fit. The space was well suited for efficient clinics and centrally located within the county.”

Through this partnership, members of the community had access to free vaccines in a central location, something that has continued to be a collaboration to help the community.

“Due to our collaboration during the height of the pandemic, we have continued to meet regularly because we recognize the potential of what is possible when we are working together,” Pepper adds. “The College of Medicine and Public Health have a shared mission of keeping people healthy. As we continue to develop our partnership it will allow us to more effectively use all of the resources to the community that we both offer.”

In addition to the work done by the Heritage Community Clinics to offer vaccines, the Heritage College also offers a mobile health clinic that provides quality medical care services to residents of Southeast Ohio. Started in 1994, the mobile clinic travels throughout 24 Ohio counties providing clinics at churches, community centers, worksites, schools and more, meeting them where they’re at. The clinic provides immunization clinics for children and adults, as well as free primary care for community members who are uninsured or underinsured, free women’s health screenings, free adult health screenings for blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol and physical for school bus drivers in the public-school systems. The clinic is staffed by a certified nurse practitioner and a registered nurse.

Mobile clinic 2023

“Supporting the health and wellbeing of local communities is a priority at Ohio University,” Dean of the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine Dr. Ken Johnson says. “Partnering with the Athens City County Health Department amplifies the impact of both entities. By pooling our resources and leveraging our strengths, we are creating increased opportunities for high-quality, low-cost health care, services and programs. Our communities are best served when we serve in partnership.”

The Heritage Community Clinic has continued its collaboration with the Athens City-County Health Department and provides support as needed. Most recently, the clinic helped with the health department's drive-through flu and COVID vaccine clinic on Oct. 9, where Heritage Community Clinic staff provided additional clinical support to our partners at the health department. 

“We've always had a good relationship with Athens City County Health Department, among other regional healthcare partners. Having that relationship enables us to act swiftly to address the needs of our community when problems arise,” Johnson says. “During the pandemic, I met weekly with health department leadership. It was during one of those meetings—on a Wednesday morning—that I learned about the health department’s need for a mass vaccination site. We walked through Heritage Hall Wednesday night and had an agreement by Thursday morning. That’s an incredible timeline! And it’s proof that when we put the good of our communities first, great things happen.”