Unique partnerships have been key to COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Genesee County

FLINT, Michigan -- Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, unique and evolving partnerships between public health and governmental organizations, nonprofits, businesses, and others have been key to providing the public with as much information as possible while also fighting large amounts of misinformation that has proliferated online and on social media since 2020. 

During the vaccine rollout in Genesee County, those partnerships have been particularly key. A recent example of an unexpected but effectively partnership was between the Genesee County Health Department, city of Flint, and the McDonald’s restaurant on Miller Road.

Leading the mobile vaccine clinic was Kimberly VanSlyke-Smith, the director of nursing services for GCHD. VanSlyke-Smith’s background provides extensive knowledge and insight into the vaccine being made available to young people 12 and older. VanSlyke-Smth has spent 15 years of her nursing career working full-time and eventually part-time in the pediatric intensive care unit at Hurley Medical Center. During that time, she also worked for the GCHD for 21 years. On top of both positions, VanSlyke-Smith has a passion for teaching and taught pediatric nursing and community nursing to students in the University of Michigan-Flint’s nursing program.

Flintside met with VanSlyke-Smith to discuss the key role the health department has had in ending vaccine barriers and understanding the safety of the vaccine for pediatric patients. 

Flintside: Tell me a little bit about your passion and love for community nursing. 

VanSlyke-Smith: “I've always been a big believer in preventative care and community outreach and community education. When I started nursing school, I thought I wanted to be a nurse-midwife because I really enjoyed working with pregnant and parenting teens. Then I decided that I didn't really like the labor and delivery part of that. So I went into pediatrics because you can still do the education with the parenting and the teen moms and the kids themselves in the pediatric environment. And then within a couple of years of working in the hospital, a position opened up at the health department that was maternal child based. So I went to the health department for the first time and dropped down to part-time.”

Flintside: It’s a pretty unique time in the world to be a community nurse. Tell me a little bit about your experience working for the health department when the pandemic started.

VanSlyke-Smith: “It was a little crazy, a little scary at first because I had only been in my position [Director of Nursing Services] for about three months, but with my background from teaching at U of M, I had a lot of experience reaching out to community members and networking with community partners for community placements for nursing students. So I already had a lot of those connections made, and then the health department itself has a lot of community partners already in place as well. So working with them and the great team that I have at the health department, everybody pulled together and started making plans. As a health department, you have emergency pandemic plans in place. That's part of our job. And part of our job is also to collaborate with community partners like schools and large businesses, to make sure that they have emergency plans in place as well. So when a pandemic happens, It's a matter of looking at the type of pandemic it is, or when a public emergency happens It's a matter of looking at the type of emergency that it is holding in the key players. Which in this instance nursing, which is why I had a big part of it. So all of the nurses in the health department work in one of my programs. So I had access to pull them in and cross-train them.

“With the initial rush, it was how to get people tested, how to do the case investigation, and the contact tracing with them. So using our communicable disease nurses and our epidemiologists, we trained all of the nurses in the health department to be able to do case investigation for COVID. And then as it grew, it quickly outgrew our ability just with my nurses. And so we also brought in the health sanitarians and all the health educators and trained them in case investigation. And then we started receiving monies from the state and the federal government for grants. We hired 30 COVID positions. 

“In collaborations, we had volunteers and seasonal nurses that we hired and one of the biggest groups of volunteers that we had were the ISD and the Flint school nurses. Flint schools actually approved because everybody was remote at the time. Their board actually approved for their nurses to help us out up to 50 percent of their work hours.”

Flintside: So switching gears a little bit, the CDC has opened up the vaccine for younger people, 12 and older. Have you witnessed or heard or had difficulty educating on the safety of the vaccine for that age group?

VanSlyke-Smith: “So we have had a fair amount of kids get vaccinated and we have a lot of physicians who are encouraging it especially for our kids who have a chronic disease, like diabetes and asthma, they are at a higher risk, just like our adults who have chronic diseases. We have a lot of kids and I've heard a ton of stories from the kids and the parents themselves of kids who want to be vaccinated because they're tired of getting quarantined because they don't want to miss any more school, they don't want to miss sporting events. They want to be able to see their friends and camp overnight activities. So the kids are asking for the vaccine, you know, and then encouraging their parents to bring them into the mix.

“So we see both, I have a friend who works at one of our health partners, who has expressed, you know, she ran right out and got her vaccine, but she's a little hesitant to get her kids vaccinated because of the newness of it. Everybody's a little concerned about things that are new, but there’s so much science behind these vaccines and if you really look in and take the time to look in at the history of it, there has been years and years into the development of the Pfizer and the Moderna mRNA vaccines. So it isn't a new concept. It's just a new virus that they've applied it to. Similar to the flu vaccine, we don't question the flu vaccine every year, but they change the flu vaccine a little bit every year based on what type of flu is going around. We know that's accepted science for the flu vaccine. So that's all that they've done really with these mRNA vaccines is they've changed the disease that it's focused on. There are 10 years behind that science and that’s pretty cool.”

Flintside: What are the symptoms being observed in the pediatric population who are testing positive with COVID-19?

VanSlyke-Smith: “The big thing that we are seeing is MIS-C. It’s a multi-inflammatory system response. The symptoms are very similar to Kawasaki's. So it's an inflammatory response, that's always seen as the most serious. That's what we've seen as the most serious side effects and long-lasting long-term issues with the kids is that because they see their parents and they see their grandparents, they potentially are spreaders of it. And so to protect other kids, you know, their family, again, their family might not have anybody that's a high risk. However, the person that they sit next to in school might have a brother or sister that is on chemotherapy or might have a father who is a really severe diabetic or might have a grandmother who has an autoimmune disorder, you just don't know. And so really to protect our community is what we're looking for. The more people that are vaccinated, the more all of our community is protected.” 

Flintside: Is there anything else that you could think of that you wish maybe people knew about the vaccine? Anything else that you wish you could communicate to the public?

VanSlyke-Smith: “One of my favorite memes that they have running around on Facebook right now, it's a little kid and he looks at his mom and he looks at her arm and she says, he says, what's that? And she says, it's my polio vaccine. And he says, I dont have one of those. And she said, yeah, I know, because it worked.

“You know, there's so many diseases that we have eradicated in the United States. Small pox, measles, we almost have eradicated, but we have it well under control. My uncle had polio and died young because polio attacked his lungs, his lung tissue, and his lung muscles. He actually died of lung complications in his fifties. People don't do that anymore because they're protected because they get their polio vaccine. So I'm excited for the day when we can say, ‘oh, you got your COVID vaccine,’ just as commonplace as you get your measles vaccine. And I'm excited for the day that we have the timeline and the years behind us that we can look back and go, nothing terrible came, only good came from the COVID vaccine. So that when and if another pandemic comes around, hopefully, next time people will be more trusting of it up front and we'll be able to get higher vaccine percentages right off the bat.”

Read more articles by Jenifer Veloso.

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