$1 million raised for Finger Lakes COVID-19 Vaccination Program to boost vaccination rates

Coronavirus

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Monroe County Executive Adam Bello, Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza and other health officials will be providing an update on the COVID-19 vaccination efforts in the Finger Lakes region at 11:30 a.m. Monday.

The county executive and health commissioner will be joined by the Finger Lakes COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force co-chairs Dr. Nancy Bennett and Wade Norwood along with President and CEO of United Way of Greater Rochester Jaime Saunders.

On Monday, United Way of Greater Rochester announced $1 million in funding for the Finger Lakes COVID-19 Vaccination Program. Officials say the COVID-19 Vaccination Program is working to address vaccine hesitancy, equitable vaccine distribution, vaccine distribution in high-risk urban neighborhoods, and the development of navigation networks to support individuals on their vaccination journey. 

“The COVID-19 vaccination effort has been a massive undertaking, the largest of our lifetime. It has required incredible coordination, manpower and community support, particularly as we’ve changed our philosophy to a more neighborhood approach of distribution,” Bello said. “Thanks to the financial support of private and non-profit partners, and the leadership of the United of Way of Greater Rochester, we’ll be able to sustain our efforts to ensure everyone who wants a COVID-19 vaccine is able to get one.”

Officials say a number of local organizations contributed to the fundraising effort, including ESL Federal Credit Union, Wegmans Food Markets, Paychex, Greater Rochester Health Foundation, United Way of Greater Rochester, and the Konar Foundation.

“What we’ve gone through over the last year and a half or so has shown there’s nothing we can’t do if we work together, and this community has come together in remarkable ways,” Bello said. “It’s because of the financial support from these entities and the $1 million in contributions that are really going to help us get to that next step. We need to make sure the virus doesn’t spread again, and all the work and all through sacrifices we’ve done continues and that we protect people. This funding is going to allow for really the max amount of flexibility that we can have and being able to adjust on the fly.”

The local officials say the next step is increasing the regional vaccination rates.

“We know that the average COVID vaccination rate for our region masks huge disparities. Affluent neighborhoods enjoy rates of 80% and higher, while a dozen low-income ZIP codes, both urban and rural, still have rates at 40% or lower,” said Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health. “The dollars United Way helped bring together are key to addressing such inequities. This local funding is helping to bring the vaccine to people where they live, work and worship; it’s helping to answer questions and address concerns; and it’s helping build trust with historically excluded and hesitant populations across our region.”

Norwood said the funding will help expanding the Vaccine Hub’s ambassador program, adding 15 members for 22 total positions. He said the plans call for one vaccine ambassador for each rural county in the area with the remainder focusing efforts on the City of Rochester and its surrounding suburbs. Norwood said these ambassadors were out and about in the communities answering vaccine questions.

“We know the vaccine is working, we know it’s the best way to fight off any variants’ Dr. Mendoza said “We know it’s the best way to get out of this pandemic. It’s been written in history before and we’re writing it now. There are many portions of our community that are not equally served by this life-saving medication. In the wise words of the Doobie Brothers, we now need to ‘take it to the streets.'”

Officials say, since March, the Finger Lakes COVID-19 vaccination program has “enabled equitable distribution of the vaccine throughout high-risk neighborhoods and towns, developed navigation networks across community organizations to support individuals on their vaccination journey, and addressed vaccine hesitancy through targeted outreach and communications.”

“For many of us, it feels like life has returned to normal. But there are still neighborhoods in Monroe County that are not adequately vaccinated, and families are at higher risk of continuing to experience the ill effects of this pandemic,” Dr. Mendoza said. “It is not over. The funds being announced today will go a long way toward helping us reach deep into these communities to provide information, education and easy access to the vaccines.”

“We mobilized the entire community to provide vaccine where it was needed,” said Dr. Bennett, Professor of Medicine and Public Health Sciences, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. “We could not have accomplished this without the generosity of our funders. The speed with which they responded to the need, and the magnitude of their assistance was incredible – and crucial to our success.”

“Our collective vaccination efforts have reached a tipping point as we shift to more targeted and resource-intensive outreach. This innovative work requires fast and flexible resources to try new approaches, which are often difficult to accomplish with public resources alone in the race against time,” Jaime Saunders, President & CEO of United Way of Greater Rochester. “When we requested help, without hesitation our business and philanthropic partners stepped up immediately and collectively committed $1 million to meet this moment on behalf of our region.”

Officials say the United Way’s Vaccine Volunteer Force has supported the Vaccination Program with some 3,000 registered volunteers who have donated more than 4,000 hours at 40 vaccination sites across the region.

“We called on the community for help in response to COVID-19 and over that weekend last March, we launched Volunteer united,” Saunders said. “And our community, true to form, showed up in big ways; to help more than 5,000 volunteers show up to safely pack food boxes, you donated PPE so our non-profits could stay open and safe, you gave laptops and technology to connect service to families and students, you donated more than $7 million in less than six months to the Crisis Fund, and you sewed more than 15,000 masks. Now we are back in this rom, 467 days later, and what we have accomplished together is nothing short of extraordinary.”

With success to reflect upon, leaders say now is not the time to stop working to end the pandemic.

“As good as this feels, we know the work is far from over,” Saunders said. “While the 70% statewide vaccination rate is to be celebrated, there remains vast disparities and gaps within our region and community where rates are much lower.”

According to the Monroe County COVID-19 dashboard, last updated a week ago, 408,097 county residents are fully vaccinated, and 440,578 have received at least one dose — 59.3% of the county population.

When asked about the Delta COVID-19 variant, the health commissioner said he wasn’t concerned at this time.

“Given how good our numbers are right now, I have no concern that the Delta variant is rampant in Monroe County at all,” Dr. Mendoza said.

This is a developing story. News 8 WROC will provide updates as they become available.

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