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Libraries on the Front Line of the COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

Vaccine Blog Feature

As highly trusted and well-connected community hubs and information centers, public libraries are ideal partners for supporting the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations in their local communities. Libraries across North America are working hand-in-hand with their local and state governments and other community leaders to help get the word out about available vaccines, dispel myths, assist with the registration process and even — in some cases — offer trusted sites for people to receive their shots.

Read below to learn about the inspiring work of three ULC member libraries who have established innovative partnerships and outreach efforts to help serve their communities on the front line of their local vaccine rollout. Click here to learn more about how ULC libraries and their communities are Going Forward from the Pandemic.

A Prince George’s County Memorial Library System COVID-19 Vaccine Hunter Hotline staff member assists a customer with securing an appointment through the state of Maryland’s GoVax website. Photo courtesy of PGCMLS.

Prince George’s County Memorial Library System

By Nicholas A. Brown, Chief Operating Officer for Communication and Outreach, Prince George’s County Memorial Library System (bio below)

The agility of library workers and our institutions has been key to our survival for decades, not just during the pandemic. At the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System, our latest service expansion involves COVID-19 vaccine hunting. “Vaccine hunting” emerged as a term in the winter of 2020-2021 as part of an organic crowdsourced movement on social media (namely Facebook). People with strong online sleuthing skills would volunteer to help community members and random strangers secure vaccine appointments through any and all available vaccine providers.

In January-March, while vaccine appointments were largely restricted to older Americans, those with underlying conditions and workers in high-risk settings, vaccine appointments were extremely difficult to come by (imagine rapidly booking vaccine appointments for dozens of people on the CVS website after they release appointments at midnight on a daily basis). While it was fantastic that vaccine appointments were available for online booking, this had the unintended effect of exacerbating inequities in health care access. If you did not have the digital literacy skills or a close relationship with someone who did, you likely faced a very discouraging and – at times – hopeless situation when it came to securing a vaccine appointment.

With the generous support of the Capital One Foundation and PGCMLS Foundation, the library rapidly developed and launched its Vaccine Hunter Hotline on April 1, 2021. The hotline’s primary goal is to connect county residents and workers with vaccine information, pre-registration opportunities and appointments. The majority of customers seeking assistance from the hotline have been senior citizens and Spanish speakers, which represents two of the local communities that have faced the greatest barriers to vaccine access. To date, Prince George’s County, which serves just over 909,000 residents and is a majority Black, Latin and immigrant community, has faced tremendous challenges with COVID-19 as the hardest hit jurisdiction in Maryland (with 81,371, or 18.66% of the state’s approximately 436,000 cases since March 2020).1 The disparities extend to vaccine distribution, with Hispanics receiving only 9.4% of total first doses in the county, despite composing over 19% of the population.2 These disparities reflect systemic inequities and much progress is being made on a daily basis through a strong effort by the Prince George’s County government, local municipal governments, community health care providers and volunteers at various nonprofit organizations like CASA de Maryland.

The PGCMLS hotline differs significantly from county and state phone hotlines in that those services focus on pre-registration for select county and state-run vaccine clinics. Our goal is to connect customers with the soonest possible appointments that meet their transportation needs or work and childcare schedule requirements across all providers offering public booking access, including retail stores like Walmart, local community pharmacies and national chain pharmacies like CVS. Hotline staff pre-register customers for upwards of five or more distinct pre-registration systems and directly book appointments for customers who need technical assistance. Customers trust the library to have accurate and timely information available to support them, especially in the COVID-19 vaccine search, which requires knowledge of countless booking systems, appointment release timing and transportation challenges.

PGCMLS hotline staff monitor publicly visible vaccine appointment availability and online vaccine hunter communities in real time to provide customers with the information they need to get vaccinated as soon as possible. In some cases, this has taken the form of helping customers secure difficult-to-obtain second dose appointments when their original provider was unable to assist, providing non-citizens with information about how to obtain a vaccine without citizenship documentation, and advising homebound residents about how to get help from the Prince George’s County Health Department mobile vaccine clinic program.

In just under three weeks of operations, the PGCMLS Vaccine Hunter Hotline has assisted over 750 customers with general questions, pre-registration bookings and direct appointment bookings. An added benefit of the hotline has been providing temporary employment to nine local residents, including former police dispatchers, students and educators.

The PGCMLS Vaccine Hunter Hotline highlights how traditional library worker skills apply in any number of situations. In this case, library workers have helped customers access potentially life-saving preventative care with the COVID-19 vaccine. Our hotline staff have an enormous sense of pride in being able to provide such significant support to our neighbors, reflective of the tireless work of all PGCMLS staff and public library workers across North America. The ability to evaluate information sources in a constantly changing environment, assess customer needs and connect them with essential social services is not new in our world, but the vaccine hunter hotline is certainly a novel expression of our values and services.

1 Source: The New York Times. Data reflects available statistics as of 5 p.m. on April 19, 2021.
2 Source: Prince George’s County COVID19 Vaccine Dashboard. Data retrieved April 19, 2021 at 5 p.m.

Photo courtesy of Cuyahoga County Public Library.

Cuyahoga County Public Library

by Hallie Rich, Communications & External Relations Director, Cuyahoga County Public Library (bio below)

One could argue that a community’s most urgent information need in Spring 2021 revolves around COVID-19 vaccinations – understanding why they are important, where to get one and how to make an appointment. As Ohio’s public vaccination rollout began early this year, Cuyahoga County Public Library quickly identified the need for information access related to the vaccine, particularly among its most vulnerable residents.

Ohio’s online vaccine appointment process requires residents to search through the multiple providers in each county to pre-register or find an appointment with an individual provider. When appointments first opened to Ohio’s oldest residents (ages 85+), there were 90 separate locations in Cuyahoga County where they could try to make an appointment – and they all operated via independent online systems. The library partnered with the Cuyahoga County Board of Health in those first weeks of vaccine registrations to be a source for residents to call and receive help navigating the complicated online appointment system. CCPL branches also distributed free bus passes for transportation to vaccination sites.

As more age groups became eligible for vaccine appointments through February, the demand for the vaccine surpassed supply. On March 5, Governor Mike DeWine announced that the Wolstein Center in Cleveland would serve as a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mass vaccination clinic with the capacity to administer 6,000 COVID-19 vaccines a day. Given the large population of high-risk residents in the Greater Cleveland area, the Ohio Department of Health reached out to local library systems to connect with those who are medically underserved. Cuyahoga County Public Library opened its branches in communities with a high social vulnerability index to FEMA canvassers who came on-site to provide immediate appointment access. Through a partnership with Global Cleveland, a local nonprofit that works with immigrants in the region, the library also received access codes that enabled staff to schedule vaccine appointments directly for residents who faced barriers such as language, computer access and transportation. CCPL staff registered more than 200 residents for vaccine appointments in just 36 hours.

As Ohio begins to reach the point where vaccine supply outpaces demand, the library will need to pivot its efforts to continue to educate the public, provide information and reduce barriers to vaccination. Making it easy and convenient for all Ohioans to receive the COVID-19 vaccine requires a collaborative approach, and public libraries are well positioned to support that work.

Artwork courtesy of Johnson County Public Library.

Johnson County Public Library

by Mackenzie Steagall, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Johnson County Public Library (bio below)

Johnson County Public Library has partnered with Johnson County Health Department and Johnson Memorial Health to assist residents with scheduling appointments to receive the COVID-19 vaccine since January 2021. Library employees have a distinct perspective into the lives of community members, and JCPL staff recognized obstacles, such as a lack of internet access, the overwhelming nature of online registration­­­­­ and lengthy wait times when calling 211 that discouraged our patrons and other residents from making vaccine appointments. Our solution: make the appointment process easy and widely accessible by training library staff to serve as registration mediators.

JCPL staff members Heather Petro and Amber Turner contacted Betsy Swearingen from the local health department to offer the library’s assistance in January when the vaccine rollout began. Turner and Petro, as well as seven other library staff members, were trained on the county health department’s scheduling software, and they are stationed at each branch of the library including the administration office. Residents can easily call any of the branches to connect with trained staff members who can talk them through the registration process in as little as five minutes. Information about the partnership spread through news stories featured in the Daily Journal, the local newspaper and TV coverage from the Indianapolis station WRTV-6. JCPL utilized our social media platforms to notify the community about the initiative, share contact and scheduling information and update the community as the age eligibility for the vaccine has lowered incrementally.

Since the partnership began, JCPL has assisted hundreds of grateful residents in signing up to receive the vaccine, and many have expressed their gratitude with comments such as, “We were having trouble getting our appointments made over the phone, and our doctor told us that the library would help us. We weren't going to get the shot until we heard that. We figured if the library is helping, then it must be good.” One patron also shared, “I am so thankful the library is offering to help get registered for the vaccine. I need all the help I can get with computers and this was the easiest process. Tell everyone thanks!”

As community-centered organizations, libraries creatively find ways to best serve their patrons, and JCPL found a way through a unique partnership with local health services. Our mission is to strengthen the community by connecting people, resources and experiences. We have fulfilled that by providing a registration service that impacts the health and safety of our community members.

Author Bios

    330 Nick Brown Headshot

    ​Nicholas A. Brown

    Chief Operating Officer for Communication and Outreach, Prince George’s County Memorial Library System

    Honduran-American librarian and arts producer Nicholas Alexander Brown is the chief operating officer for communication and outreach at the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System in Maryland. He is a past president of the DC Library Association, an active ALA Rainbow Roundtable member, former music specialist at the Library of Congress and former Army bandsman. Follow the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System @PGCMLS on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

    ​ Hallie Rich 330

    ​Hallie Rich

    Communications & External Relations Director, Cuyahoga County Public Library

    Hallie Rich is the communications and external relations director at Cuyahoga County Public Library. She is currently obtaining her MLIS at the University of South Carolina and holds a master's degree in positive organizational development from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and a bachelor's degree from the College of Wooster. She is active in library advocacy and a member of the American Library Association Policy Corps.

    330 Mackenzie Steagall

    Mackenzie Steagall

    Marketing & Communications Specialist, Johnson County Public Library

    Mackenzie Steagall is marketing and communications specialist for Johnson County Public Library, headquartered in Franklin, Ind. The library system has four branches located south of Indianapolis. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing from Franklin College.

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