Battle Creek

Vaccine Ambassadors report people are paying attention to their message of the need for vaccine

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.

One person at a time, that’s how Arniece Montgomery is handling her work as one of more than 50 Vaccine Ambassadors in Calhoun County. Her approach appears to be paying off.
“I noticed after COVID got so bad and so many people were dying that more people were taking advantage of vaccination clinics offered in the community,” Montgomery says. “I called and invited my best friend and family members who had not been vaccinated to those clinics.”
That invitation, made earlier last year, was declined. But she continued to have conversations with them and anyone else she could about the potentially life-threatening impact of the virus and its variants and the importance of being vaccinated.
A few months later, she called that friend for no particular reason and learned that she had been vaccinated. 
“My best friend had some health issues and she’s also a thinker and an investigator. She had gone online and came away absolutely and totally against being vaccinated,” Montgomery says. “Then one day I called her and she said she got the shot after she weighed her existing health issues and how much more serious they could become if she got COVID.”
That phone call was followed by a conversation with her cousin, Eric Jackson, who said he also was getting the shots. Jackson, who lives in Battle Creek, says he was depending on his faith to guide him. He says he spoke with Montgomery briefly about getting vaccinated before calling her one day to tell her he would get the vaccine.
Arniece Montgomery is a caregiver to her father and has been a COVID ambassador. She’s seen here at Washington Heights United Methodist Church.“It’s like anything else. It’s your choice,” Jackson says. “I was just depending on the word of God and I kept on praying about it. He told me to seek counsel and I sought counsel from a friend in South Carolina who told me that it’s impossible to please God without faith and it takes faith to get the shot. I decided after that that I am going to take the shot. I took the shot back in March. I just went on and took it and I believed it would work. I had the booster, too. I think that was the best thing I could do.”
Montgomery, who is retired, says she signed up to be a Vaccine Ambassador because she is concerned about her community and wants to help it thrive.
She is among the earliest volunteers in the program that began in early April with the express purpose to educate residents throughout the county about the importance of being vaccinated. 

This work was among the local vaccine initiatives funded through a $70,000 grant given to the Population Health Alliance of Calhoun County in January from Community Partners through Bronson Battle Creek Hospital to support education around COVID for people ages 18-35 and Communities of Color because infection rates among these groups have been consistently higher than other groups. At the time, Angela Stewart, director of the PHA, said the messaging initially was centered around the importance of safe practices such as social distancing and wearing a mask prior to the availability of a vaccine. The discussion now is focused on disseminating information to lessen the instances of vaccine hesitancy.

“Our messaging is not to say you must go and get this vaccine, but you can make an educated decision about whether or not to get it,” Stewart said earlier.
She refers to the Ambassadors as “trust agents,” many of whom already have established levels of trust within diverse populations in the community that have the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy. 
Spreading the message without fear
For several months, Montgomery met up with other ambassadors at Washington Heights United Methodist Church where they would decide where they would focus their efforts.
“We met just about every day,” she says. “In the beginning, we saw a lot of aggression and animosity and depending on where we were people didn’t open the door or challenged us in some way. We tried to give as many facts as we could about COVID and the vaccines and that we believed in the science and were ourselves vaccinated.”
In September, Montgomery, 67, got COVID and says her outcome would have been much worse had she not been vaccinated. Her own experience is something she has not been reluctant to talk about with those she meets.
Arniece Montgomery is a caregiver to her father and has been a COVID ambassador. She’s seen here at Washington Heights United Methodist Church.Some areas of the city had different points of view, including some with a healthy distrust of government in general for a variety of reasons.  
“One volunteer ambassador knocked on the door of a house with a Trump sign in the front yard and no one came to the door. A gentleman saw her and another ambassador going through the neighborhood and he confronted them and said, ‘Don’t come to my house,’” Montgomery says. “There was a lot of animosity right after the election and at the beginning of COVID. As this disease progressed and people were dying from it, there was a distrust of the government.”
In the African American community, this distrust has been fueled by unethical and racially motivated medical experiments that had disastrous consequences. Historically, African Americans have not had positive experiences with the medical industry. Examples of this include the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment in which African American men were injected with syphilis virus with no follow-up treatment. The experiment began in 1932 and continued until 1972 under the direction of the U.S. Public Health Service. There also was the forced sterilization of African American women who were among a large group who unknowingly underwent the procedure.

According to an article on the ThoughtCo. website, “Countless numbers of Americans who were poor, mentally ill, from minority backgrounds or otherwise regarded as 'undesirable' were sterilized as the eugenics movement gained momentum in the United States. Early 20th century eugenicists believed that measures should be taken to prevent 'undesirables' from reproducing so that problems such as poverty and substance abuse would be eliminated in future generations.”
Jackson says he has heard from people in the city’s African American community who have expressed reluctance to get vaccinated because of these past injustices.
A sign outside the Capital Avenue Pharmacy, at the northeast corner of Capital Avenue Southwest and Territoriai Road, advertises free COVID shots.“I didn’t listen to what people were saying. That didn’t concern me,” he says. “People would talk about Tuskegee, but I don’t have anything to do with that. I just made my decision and never really thought about the rest of it.”
Montgomery says if people she met along her ambassador route started an argument with her or refused to engage in a discussion, she simply moved on. She says that those who choose not to get vaccinated don’t seem to want to talk about it.
 “I’d like to know what they’re thinking. There’s a lot of cloak and dagger stuff going on here. They don’t even want to tell me their name,” she says.
As an ambassador, she was always paired with someone and says she never feared for her own safety or shirked her commitment to encourage people to get vaccinated. 
“One time in Urbandale a gentleman started an argument with me and the younger man I was with was very upset,” Montgomery says.
It was not uncommon for people to slam the door in her face or intimidate her and her partner ambassador by setting their dogs loose on them or taking video and photos of them as they made their way through a neighborhood.
Not one to retreat, Montgomery turned the tables on one woman who was taking pictures by taking pictures of the woman.
“I really believe in God and I pray,” she says.
What they want people to know
Montgomery’s work as an ambassador was put on hold so that she could care for her father who suffered a stroke. This has given her the opportunity to see the impact of COVID from a different vantage point. Two days before Thanksgiving she took her father to the hospital where he was admitted for testing and released. But she continued to notice changes in his ability to get around and in his ability to communicate with clarity.
On Dec. 29, she took him back to the hospital where they waited for six hours to see a physician and she wasn’t allowed to accompany him to the room they put him in.
“The attitude at the hospital had completely changed,” she says. “I explained that he’s 94-years-old and he gets confused and they still wouldn’t let me go in. Some of the staff was on my side and some weren’t. It was like they were pitted against each other.”
What Montgomery experienced was predicted by healthcare professionals who warned of longer stays in area emergency rooms before being seen and increased protocols because of the rapid rise in COVID cases.
“People need to understand how their decision not to get vaccinated is affecting others,” she says. “It’s like a crapshoot. You get COVID and not even know that you have it. In the times we’re living in now if you get it and need medical care, you may not get the best care that you need. The hospital may be bogged down with 10 or 15 other patients and you may be waiting.”
Jackson says he would “advise them to take the shot. It’s not about you, it’s about other people you’re around. I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

But, he says, it’s also a choice and he doesn’t pull any punches about how he will interact with those who remain unvaccinated.
“If you haven’t been vaccinated, I don’t want you around me without having a mask on,” he says.

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.