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Reaching the hard to reach: How one team is helping Houstonians get vaccinated

Photo of a woman wearing a doctor's white coat, taking on the phone at a desk with a computer. (Photo by Getty Images)
UT Physicians Healthcare Transformation Initiatives (HTI) team have dedicated their nights and weekends to the vaccination effort. (Photo by Getty Images)

It’s 7:30 in the evening, spouses want to share the details of their day, dogs are barking for attention, and families want to unwind together – all these requests go unanswered for the greater good. For the last several months, the employees of the UT Physicians Healthcare Transformation Initiatives (HTI) team have dedicated their nights and weekends to the vaccination effort.

HTI’s team handled the initial scheduling of the COVID-19 vaccine appointments for students, faculty, and employees at UT Physicians, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), and McGovern Medical School at UThealth. Once vaccines were ready and available to the public, it made sense that they would continue the invitation and scheduling effort considering their department’s mission.

“Our team at HTI is dedicated to ensuring the health equity for all patient populations,” said Yen-Chi Le, PhD, director of innovation and evaluation at HTI.

The second phase to qualify according to state and federal guidelines was Phase 1B, people ages 65 and older or those with a medical condition that put them at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. To get this population scheduled, texts and emails were sent out to patients that would allow them to complete a health survey and book an appointment, but this posed a problem for a significant group of people who couldn’t text or access the internet.

Christina Nordheim, community health education specialist supervisor at HTI, had a plan, though it did seem like a daunting task – call every single person who lacked either the skills or tools to schedule their own appointment.

Additionally, once the word was out that the vaccine was available at UT Physicians, calls from the public asking to be vaccinated dominated the call center. With lines constantly busy and ringing, help from HTI needed to expand to that department as well.

“Word spread to the community quickly that we had the vaccine and our call center wasn’t equipped to handle the overwhelming amount of vaccine inquiries, so we banded together to help staff as many lines as we could,” said Nordheim.

Their team quickly grew from eight people to 18 out of necessity. Eighteen individuals with a great responsibility on their shoulders, one that sometimes weighed heavily on their hearts.

“When we were initially asked to do this, I told our team, ‘Remember, this could be your grandmother or grandfather that needs help,’” said Le. “We approached this assignment thinking it would be temporary support, but I don’t think any of us fully understood the scale and duration of vaccine distribution, especially when UTHealth was designated a community vaccine hub.”

As the phone team made more calls to reach potential vaccine recipients, one common theme arose: loneliness. These individuals had been cut off from their family and friends for fear of endangering their health. Calls to schedule their vaccine appointments could take upwards of 30 minutes sometimes, just because they were so happy to have someone to talk with.

Veronica Martinez, community health worker coordinator at HTI, is part of the scheduling team and frequently reaches out to our Spanish-speaking population to provide translation assistance. During her calls to the public, she was witness to the effects of their social isolation.

“At this point, these people had been in their homes, sometimes alone, for a year,” said Martinez. “When we start talking, they’ll mention how they can’t see their loved ones. Some of them start crying. You can hear it in their voice, it’s a desperation to get this vaccine in hopes they can return to the outside world.”

To date, HTI’s team has called nearly 3,000 patients, on top of managing text and email communications regarding vaccine appointment scheduling.

However, their story isn’t one about numbers or data; it’s one of heart, hope, and compassion.

“It’s a lot of personal sacrifices for the greater good,” said Martinez. “I think about where I want us all to be in the next couple of months and it’s being out with family and friends without fear. It’s enjoying our lives to the fullest again. That’s why I believe in what we’re doing.”

The phone bank is currently looking for volunteers to assist technology-limited patients with vaccine scheduling and pre-vaccination screenings. In-person and remote positions are open. Requirements include phone and computer access, patience, and ability to converse with patients. Sign up online.

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