The UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing’s Wellness 360 clinic has partnered with San Antonio Metro Health District and other community partners to mobilize and administer COVID-19 vaccines in the community’s most-needed areas.

“This is our effort to reach the unreachable,” said Adelita Cantu, PhD, RN, associate professor in the School of Nursing. “There is a need to go out into the community because, for those in the most vulnerable areas, they just don’t have the resources to go out to the hub centers to be vaccinated.”

Lack of transportation, little to no internet access, being homebound due to disability, age or illness and the confusion of navigating large, crowded centers are just some of the barriers that make it difficult for many to get vaccinated, particularly for those in marginalized populations, Dr. Cantu said.

Led by Dr. Cantu and Ruth Berggren, MD, MACP, infectious disease specialist and director of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics, the mobile vaccination initiative is a community and university-wide effort built on partnerships with city agencies and community liaisons. Weekly meetings with San Antonio Metro Health District helped to determine locations for the mobile vaccination sites, largely focusing on the south, west and east sides of San Antonio.

Existing partnerships between faculty and community centers around town also allowed for coordinated efforts with trusted ties in areas of most need. Martha Martinez, MSN, RNC, CNS, clinical associate professor in the School of Nursing, has partnered with the Madonna Center for more than six years, where her nursing students provide wellness visits to individuals in the center’s senior program for their clinical rotations. When she received a request for possible mobile vaccination site locations, she immediately thought of the seniors at the Madonna Center.

“That zip code has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 in San Antonio,” Martinez said. “For the university to be able to provide the vaccines at the local level means people don’t have to miss as much work, it’s close to their homes, there’s no waiting like at the big hubs, so it makes a difference.”

Martha Martinez, MSN, RNC, CNS, preparing to give the COVID-19 vaccine to a senior at the Madonna Center.

The Madonna Center is located on the city’s west side and serves low-income, predominantly Hispanic families and individuals. The center offers educational and health and wellness programs, and connects the community it serves to vital resources.

“We view the agency as a connector, we connect the resource with the need,” said Roger Caballero, executive director of the Madonna Center. “If we can do it here, even better, because they’re familiar with the area, they know how to get here and they have a relationship with the folks working with them. That’s huge,” Caballero said.

The familiarity the seniors have with both the Madonna Center and UT Health San Antonio nursing students and faculty is key to providing care to the seniors, he added.

“This pandemic has traumatized all of us in some way, and it’s scary to go out. Being unfamiliar with an area can be a barrier in itself,” he said.

Martinez agreed that mutual trust and respect are crucial factors when it comes to public health initiatives, especially when vaccine hesitancy still persists.

“Before we brought the mobile vaccination unit to the center, I made sure to call and ask if we could come out there,” Martinez said. “Asking for their permission shows our respect for their integrity as a community, not just coming in and saying ‘We’re here, come get it.’ In public health, it’s very important that as providers we understand that it is their community and we need to be respectful of that.”

The mobile clinic has administered 161 vaccines at the Madonna Center as of April 13, with more visits planned for the future. The response from the seniors there has been overwhelmingly positive, Martinez said.

“All they can say is how wonderful this is and what a blessing it is. And this is why we’re there. For the people who are unable to access the things that we can access,” she said “I think the university should be very proud of what they’re doing.”

By the end of April, there were 41 mobile clinic events held throughout the community, with 986 individuals fully vaccinated and 792 first doses of the vaccine administered.