This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.
As the COVID vaccine rollout continues, Midwesterners have a lot of questions about distribution plans — and the vaccine itself. One state is getting help from a surprising place: public libraries.
Noble County is mostly rural and sits in the northeast corner of Indiana. When local officials looked for vaccination sites, they sought a place that was centrally located and accessible.
Library director Sandy Petrie knew the perfect fit.
“They're able to drive right up to the door,” Petrie says. “And, you know, they've got wheelchairs and walkers downstairs, but just the way we're set up, they're able to drop off, especially the elderly, like, literally three feet from the door.”
The library’s first floor conference rooms have been converted to storage, vaccination and waiting rooms, but Petrie says the changes have not altered operations.
“The beautiful thing about libraries we're one of the only government entities that doesn't operate inside a box, we don't have these defined parameters about what we can be for our communities,” Petrie says. “We are what our communities need us to be.”
Indiana Library Federation Director Lucinda Nord says libraries have evolved to help communities throughout the pandemic. In the fall, they started working with the state to see what they could do once vaccines were available.
“That includes helping disseminate information about the vaccine, about the safety of the vaccine,” Nord says. “Residents have lots of questions about what it is, is it safe, how does it work? Who's eligible.”
Indiana’s vaccine plan includes an age-based rollout. And Nord says some older residents might be uncomfortable registering for a vaccine online. Others might not have a computer
Mandla Moyo of AARP Indiana says members are at high risk for severe COVID complications. The organization has worked hard to provide information on the virus and the vaccine, but Moyo welcomes help from others.
“AARP won't be able to solve the needs for everybody, we won't be able to reach everybody,” Moyo says. “But if we're all sort of singing from the same hymnal and reaching out to our members with similar information and similar resources, then the impact will be felt.”
Nord says libraries are often one of the most trusted public institutions in a community. And that can help with people who are reluctant to get a vaccine.
“And so we feel our job as those trusted professionals, as a trusted institution, is to disseminate fact based information,” Nord says. “And to do outreach appropriately, because it's the library worker who has a relationship with, you know, the residents and their community.”
In many rural communities, broadband internet access can be spotty — or non-existent. Indiana Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsey Weaver says libraries play an important role in addressing those equity issues.
“We recognize that libraries are often the only way to access the internet because so many Hoosiers live in an area with limited internet access or cannot afford it,” Weaver says. “This provides support not only to Hoosiers but to our local health departments. “
The Carroll County Health Department is small. Delphi Public Library director Portia Kapraun says to prevent being overwhelmed, the health department sends residents to the library for vaccination help over the phone.
“So, they just send them over here and it takes about 10 minutes and we find them a spot and get them registered,” Kapraun says.
Kapraun says staffers print and mail out the confirmations.
“When their appointment comes up, they're fully registered, they can just walk in, all their paperwork is done, they walk in and get their shot, and they're ready to go,” Kapraun says.
The Mooresville Library created an Express Station computer that takes users directly to the vaccine registration. Director Diane Huerkamp says the goal is to streamline the process.
“You're looking at the demographics of mature age folks that might not be able
to click three or four different addresses or URLs to get to that point and we want to avoid frustration,” Huerkamp says. “It's already frustrating enough to maneuver on the internet. And so we're trying to eliminate that.”
Huerkamp says community outreach is just part of being a library.
“This is what libraries do. When there's a situation where we can come in and provide assistance,” Huerkamp says. “That's what we're here for, is to provide assistance to, give information. That’s our role.”
Photo by Natalie Krebs: Tama County Public Health Executive Director Shannon Zoffka (right) speaks to a volunteer at the county's COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the former Girls State Training School in Toledo, Iowa.