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Making History: Women work to get their Black Belt hometown to fully vaccinated

by: Casey Roberts

Dorothy Oliver and Drucilla Russ-Jackson made history this past year in their community of Panola, Alabama, when they successfully got 97% of their community fully vaccinated by September 2021.
Oliver, a widow and store-owner, and Russ-Jackson, Sumter County Commissioner and stepmother to Selma District Attorney Michael Jackson, joined forces shortly after the state’s own vaccine rollout. Oliver would converse with patrons of her general store over the rise of COVID-19 and the vaccine.
“I would tell them, watch the news and tell me if you want to take a chance with it,” Oliver said.
For state officials, a chief concern was outreach to rural communities to push for greater vaccination rates. That is when Oliver and her team began canvassing residents, going door-to-door and inquiring residents on vaccination status while urging residents to set appointments.
A lack of internet access, along with computer access, was an initial barrier between the people receiving the education necessary for vaccine education. With a lack of transportation also standing in the way of many residents seeking vaccines, the doses needed to be delivered to the rural community, dozens of miles away from the metropolises teeming with vaccination opportunities. Oliver’s team eventually confirmed enough vaccinations to bring Moderna to Panola, an event set in the town’s center. It would be the first of three single-day vaccination events, according to Oliver.
Oliver and Russ-Jackson worked with officials from Hill Hospital in York, Whatley Health in Tuscaloosa and the local health department to distribute vaccines across Sumter County. Eventually they organized a vaccine clinic with the National Guard for residents who couldn’t travel out of town.
The New Yorker traveled to Panola to cover the efforts of Oliver and Russ-Jackson in a mini-documentary titled “The Panola Project,” bringing national attention to the small town’s mission. Directed by filmmakers Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy Levine, the film has now been making the rounds at film festivals throughout the South.
“I just felt like I had to do it because the government — nobody does enough in this area,” Oliver says in the documentary.
Those who were more difficult to persuade tended towards the younger demographic. However with gentle persistence from Oliver, most with reservations eventually sought out vaccines. Russ-Jackson, a former educator, urged her former students another way—incentivizing one of her students with $5 for them to get the shot. Soon others in the community followed suit.
Oliver confessed that she encountered only one resident who refused the vaccine on political grounds, otherwise touting a great reception, saying to MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “We went door to door, talking to them, and we didn’t have any problem.”
In the state of Alabama, the current rate of those fully vaccinated stands at only 49.6% as of February 2022, yet Panola maintains the highest vaccination rate in the state due to the efforts of Oliver and Russ-Jackson.
“Dorothy has been like a sister to me ever since she’s been in Panola,” Russ-Jackson said. “If there’s something to be done, we get out there and do it together.”
As of September, Oliver could note only one death in her community related to COVID. Through the push from Oliver and Russ-Jackson, almost every eligible resident were educated on the benefits of vaccination for themselves and the community at large.
“We had help from the ministers in the community,” Russ-Jackson said. “One of the ministers told his congregation that before he was going to go back into church, the parishioners would need to be vaccinated.”
Going forward, the two have plans to help distribute booster shots to eligible residents. Vaccinating children in the community is also a top priority moving forward, along with the few residents still unvaccinated in Panola.
“I’m not going to stop until the job is done,” Oliver said of her efforts adding, “I just enjoy working in this community, and I just feel like they need me in this community.”