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Volunteer phone bank helping health district with outreach

A volunteer-led phone bank has been helping the Blue Ridge Health District get people 65 or older registered for vaccines.

The phone bank, which kicked off this month, was organized Kelsey Cowger, with Kathryn Laughon from the University of Virginia School of Nursing and Dr. Paige Perriello, with the goal of doing proactive outreach that health district staff didn’t have the time to do.

“The only time people who were having trouble getting registered were interfacing with the health department is when they were calling on their own and the health department was concerned about all the people who could theoretically be getting missed,” Cowger said. “There are people who don’t have great internet access, or live in areas with poor cell signal or people who just didn’t know because they haven’t been able to get the messaging that’s gone up from the health department.”

With a background in political organizing, Cowger said she was no stranger to phone banking and other types of outreach, but had adapted those skills to a COVID-19 reality. With the help of Laughon and Perriello, Cowger said they soon had dozens of volunteers, many of whom were from UVa’s School of Nursing.

“This is something that’s out of the comfort zone of a lot of students, but they just stepped up so hugely,” Cowger said. “I also asked people to write down what languages they were fluent in so we could have conversations with people in languages where they were comfortable and we ended up with 22 different languages.”

In addition to informing people about pre-registration, Laughon said volunteers from UVa’s medical schools also can help people register and can also answer a few basic medical questions about the vaccine.

“They aren’t giving medical advice, but they’re able to answer questions about seasonal allergies and they’re able to sensitively address vaccine hesitancy,” Laughon said. “Though we could train folks to do this, we felt like this group of students in particular would be already most of the way there.”

One of the biggest hurdles facing the phone bank was how to get the phone numbers of residents of Albemarle County and Charlottesville. With no central database at the health district, Cowger said they were provided access to voter databases from Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, and Jennifer Kitchen, who is running for the 25th District seat.

These databases are regularly used by campaigns to more effectively canvas and contain and a huge number of phone numbers, Hudson said, something she was happy to share.

“As we got to talking to things, the conversation came around to how we can help people who are not comfortable doing the process on the web,” Hudson said. “We figured we’d need to do it over the phone, or maybe go to the person and I started thinking, ‘Well, it sounds like you need to make a lot of calls and knock a lot of doors, and anyone who’s run for office knows how to do that.’”

Kitchen, whose database contains numbers for a portion of Albemarle County, agreed.

“As a candidate I have access to a lot of data and it’s really important right now that we share that so that we can make sure that people are getting vaccinated,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that political data gets sort of thrown to gatekeepers and I really think that we need to look beyond partisan politics in a time where we can take care of each other’s health.”

These voter databases are often used to reach out to specific groups of voters, Cowger said, but were instead used by the phone bank to reach out to all residents 65 and older, regardless of political affiliation.

“The voter file is public access; anybody has the ability to check numbers in the voter file no matter who you are, it’s all publicly available,” Cowger said. “What candidates have the ability to do is run software that puts those people into lists that you can call through a phone bank. So what candidates have that any person doesn’t necessarily have, is the ability to, say, make a list of everyone who lives in Charlottesville right now.”

Thanks to the information in the databases, Cowger estimates they have been able to reach more than 2,500 people in the community. The nonpartisan effort has not been used to campaign, Cowger said, and has been wholly centered on helping people register.

Going forward, Cowger said they hope to expand the phone bank’s efforts into other areas of the health district and she’s reached out to public officials and candidates from both the Republican and Democratic background to see if they are willing to share their databases.

Cowger said she only expects the number of volunteers to grow going forward, as the itch to do volunteer work in a COVID-19 safe manner continues.


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