Shelby County funds programs to tackle vaccine disparities and mistrust

By: - August 5, 2021 5:00 am
Shelby County Commission

Shelby County Commission (Photo:

Shelby County Commission buckled down on vaccine disparities and low vaccination rates by passing several resolutions to combat vaccine mistrust in at-risk zip codes.

“Having that immunity is what is going to get us out, if we are to ever get out of the shadow of this virus,” said Commissioner Mick Wright, R-Memphis.“The way out of this is vaccination.” 

On Wednesday, Shelby County commissioners approved several contracts between the county government and designated partners to address the county’s critically low vaccination rates.

As of Tuesday, 36% of Shelby County residents have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 45% have received the first dose, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

In Shelby County, 52% of the residents are Black, but as of Wednesday accounted for only 36% of the vaccinations. Hispanic people make up 5.6% of the population and account for 6% of the vaccinated residents, according to the Shelby County Health Department.

Since the vaccine first became available, vaccination rates have continued to stay low among residents of color, and health officials believe the reason is  mistrust in the vaccine and inaccessibility.

City officials awarded funds from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to established community organizations equipped to reach at-risk zip codes.

Actions taken included:

  • A resolution approving a contract between Shelby County government on behalf of the Shelby County Health Department and LeMoyne-Owen College for $673,104. LeMoyne-Owen College, a historically Black college, will use the funds to mitigate and reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus by sending students out into at-risk neighborhoods to educate and build trust around the vaccine from through  Jul 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022. 
  • The Shelby County Health Department is contracting with the University of Memphis for $478,556 and another between the health department and the University of Tennessee and University Clinical Health for  $400,000.00. UT will provide lab-testing capacity, specimen collection services and mobile testing sites while the University of Memphis will research public compliance with the COVID-19 response policies and vaccine distributions within at-risk zip codes in Shelby County. 
  • Leadership Memphis will execute a multi-channel marketing communication campaign to educate and build trust around the vaccine within at-risk zip codes on behalf of the Shelby County Health Department for $565,727.
Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, Jr. (Photo: Shelby County)
Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, Jr. (Photo: Shelby County)

Commissioner Van Turner Jr. sponsored all four resolutions.

Because COVID-19 variants continue to evolve, all the resolutions have an option to renew.

Decisions need to be made

Shelby County commissioners also passed a resolution to request the county health department reinstate a mask mandate following Tuesday’s action by the  Memphis City Council, which also unanimously passed a resolution asking the department to issue a mask mandate.

 Dr. Michelle Taylor, the Shelby County Health Department director, said the pandemic will get worse, based on new knowledge about the Delta variant. Rates rose from a daily average of 105 new cases in July to an average of 430 cases each day by Tuesday. 

As scientists research the COVID-19 variant, narratives continue to change. People contaminated with the first  COVID-19 strain were able to infect up to two people, but research now suggests that people carrying the Delta variant can infect up to five people, making it a much more deadly strain, said Taylor.. 

CDC guidelines now recommend both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks indoors and outdoors when in crowded locations, but the CDC has stopped short of mandating the use of masks. Because of this, Taylor recommended reinstating the mask mandate.

“If folks continue not to be compliant, the science tells us that there will be other variants besides the Delta variant,” said Taylor. “And what viruses do is try to figure out how to get around any protective measures.” 

Taking a stance 

In July,  Gov. Bill Lee made the decision to fire Tennessee’s chief immunologist, Dr. Michelle Fiscus  and stop all vaccination awareness campaigns to children.

Since then, the Shelby County Commission has taken action to defy the governor. 

On July 26, Shelby County commissioners passed a resolution to recognize August as National Vaccine Month and on Monday, Shelby County Schools officials announced they will continue to mandate masks in schools. 

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.