FORT ATKINSON — A Fort Atkinson-based agency, aided by a state grant, has put together a vaccine education package that can be used by any organization or company wishing to educate its members or workers about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Opportunities Inc. has its headquarters in Fort Atkinson with a satellite employment agency in Watertown, serves several areas.
The agency works with people of all abilities and all backgrounds, from those with intellectual disabilities to those with other barriers to employment such as alcohol or other drug issues, homelessness, physical disabilities and more.
It also serves a general population of people entering the workforce or seeking to switch jobs or careers.
Laura Loyd, human resources manager for Opportunities, and Robin Kennedy, Opportunities’ vice president for mission advancement, talked about the education campaign they had crafted and how it came about.
“Because of my health care background, I serve as the boots-on-the-ground to make sure there are no outbreaks here at Opportunities,” Loyd said. “So, I’ve been involved in COVID-19 prevention efforts from the very start.
“I know how these things can travel, so when vaccines became available, I led efforts to get our employees vaccinated to improve safety for everyone,” Loyd said.
While many other businesses shut down in the early days of the pandemic, Opportunities continued to operate its plant pretty much throughout, while taking great measures to protect employees and clients’ health and safety.
“I think we’ve done a great job here,” Loyd said. “We formed a task force right away to stay on top of what’s happening.”
She said Opportunities decision makers looked at the latest information and tried to use best practices, instating a mask requirement early on, she said.
“We knew there’d be some reluctance at first, and we understand masks are not the most comfortable thing, but it turns out they really, really work to prevent the spread of infection,” Loyd said.
In addition, Opportunities developed strict protocols urging people not to come in if they were sick and establishing a screening process to keep anyone who might have been exposed to COVID-19 from spreading the disease to others.
When the vaccine came out, it just made sense to make it available on-site to employees and clients — first, second and third-shift — to protect the most vulnerable folks in Opportunities’ charge.
“We know what it takes to keep people healthy, engaged and safe during a very difficult time,” Kennedy said.
Later, Opportunities officials learned of a grant program offering funding for the development of a vaccine-education campaign which could be used by other organizations, entities and businesses.
“We already have a great system here for communicating with the public,” Kennedy said, referencing the “A-Team” (Advocacy Team) which Opportunities helped found to address rights for workers with disabilities nationwide.
“Why not use that system to get the word out?” Kennedy asked.
Opportunities applied for the $100,000 grant in March of this year and learned that they would receive it in April. The Fort Atkinson-based agency was among 101 organizations across the state receiving these grants.
The state’s Department of Health Services distributed a total of $6.3 million in grants with the goal of getting 80% of the state’s population vaccinated.
This goal is reachable, but still some ways away with 51.1% of Wisconsinites fully vaccinated as of the start of this week.
In mid-April, Opportunities set to work on its plan, drawing on the expertise of the county health department and its epidemiologist, Samroz Jakvani, to make sure all of the information they shared was absolutely accurate and up-to-date.
What Opportunities came up with was a multimedia toolkit.
It includes downloadable wellness flyers explaining the vaccine and addressing common concerns people have, announcements, a Power Point presentation, a reproducible logo that could be adopted by anyone using this campaign, and video components which could be shared on-site or online.
“We created a full Google Drive solution that includes all of these parts,” Kennedy said.
That “solution” is now available for other organizations to use.
The aim is trifold, Kennedy said. First, Opportunities tried to educate people on each of the vaccines which are currently available in the United States, with explanations by board member Dr. Don Williams.
Secondly, the campaign aims to encourage people to make the right decision for their health. Third, the campaign aims to empower people by letting them know how and where they can access vaccines, and even connecting them to transportation if necessary.
The videos which Opportunities has created to share this information also include some testimonials from people who have received the vaccine, who shared how grateful they were to be out of danger and to be able to return to normal activities without extra protections like social distancing and masks.
“A lot of the people we talked to shared the message that the main reason they want to get the vaccine was to protect the people they love,” Loyd said. “These might be children for whom a vaccine is not yet available or people whose immune system is suppressed so the vaccines might not be fully effective for them.”
Those creating the educational materials were careful not to espouse a political view or to tell people what to do with their own bodies or health, Kennedy said. The agency seeks to connect people to unbiased information to empower them to make the best choices for themselves.
“We work with a diverse population,” Kennedy said. “We’re sensitive about putting people on the spot. We want to educate and empower people to make their own decisions.”
Response to the video series has been really positive, Loyd said.
So far, Opportunities has shared the full drive with 12,000 different people/organizations/businesses, empowering those people and groups to spread the information and help those in their orbit.
“Anyone can go into the drive and use the whole toolkit,” Loyd said. “Organizations don’t have to put any of their own resources into it — it’s all there ready to use.”
In the meantime, to reach those with barriers to the regular information outlets, the agency has also employed a “COVID navigator,” Troy Norman, to do community outreach.
Norman has been traveling to high-need areas to give presentations to local chambers of commerce, county organizations, homeless services, food pantries.
“People at a homeless shelter might not have a phone or TV,” Loyd said, noting that Norman’s more personal outreach efforts help the campaign reach those without access to the normal resources like a cell phone or television.
The project runs through Sept. 1 of this year, and then Opportunities and the other agencies which received these grant funds have to report back to the state about their outreach efforts.