Dr. Joe Roberts was born and raised in Robeson County. It’s where he still lives and practices medicine.
There, the town of Pembroke is the seat of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, to which he belongs.
American Indians, 43% of the county’s population, have the largest share of COVID-19 cases and deaths by race and ethnicity in Robeson County, about 100 miles south of Raleigh.
As a medical provider and a Lumbee, Roberts says seeing his county, and community, also rank among the lowest in vaccinations has been hard.
“For years, (providers) felt like that their patients relied on them and trusted them as far as giving advice for health issues,” he said, “until it has come to the vaccine.”
As of Aug. 31, only 26% of the Lumbee tribe had received at least a first dose of vaccine, according to a report by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services shared on the Lumbee Tribe’s Facebook page. That was below the county’s overall first-dose vaccination rate, which on Friday was nearly 39%.
People in the community have lost trust in health care providers during the pandemic, Roberts says, even when the providers are Lumbee, just like them.
Fighting misinformation and increasing vaccine rates
The nonprofit Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE), founded by actor Sean Penn after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, recently received a $1 million grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration to help in Robeson County.
“That funding is going to allow us to conduct face-to-face outreach,” said Linda Oxendine, a Lumbee and the regional director for CORE. “(This) is very important because a lot of the decision-making has been made solely on what they’ve heard, hearsay, and not necessarily the facts.”
Through the grant, CORE expects to expand its COVID-19 relief efforts, particularly vaccinations, in the Lumbee, Black and Hispanic communities, which have been hit hardest by COVID-19 in Robeson County.
In the last few months, the Lumbee tribe has been running a campaign featuring at least 17 medical providers between Robeson and Scotland counties, all of them Lumbees, promoting vaccinations.
One video features Dr. Kenneth Locklear, a family doctor in Red Springs, N.C. who tells viewers the vaccine is “imperative to protect yourself against COVID-19 and the delta variant” that has caused a recent spike in cases in the county.
“I want you to think of we physicians who are taking care of these patients that we’ve taken care of for years. And we’re watching them die because they won’t take the COVID vaccine or they’re scared (to),” he continues.
“We also think of the physician who works in the ICU, who has a patient die from COVID, takes them to the morgue, comes back up and assumes the care of another patient who has COVID-19,” Locklear said. “This takes a toll on physicians and healthcare workers who see this every day.”
One of the many organizations partnering with CORE is UNC Health Southeastern, where Roberts is vice president and chief medical officer. Since the pandemic began, CORE and its partners have been providing COVID-19 testing, screenings, food and personal protective equipment in the community.
One of the biggest efforts takes place at the Lumbee Tribal Housing Complex in Pembroke.
Every weekday, the tribe hosts free COVID-19 testing.
A drive-thru vaccination clinic is held Tuesdays from 3 to 6 p.m. with volunteers from UNC Health Southeastern, the Old North State Medical Society, the UNC Pembroke School of Nursing and the Robeson County Health Department.
Those who get the shots also get a T-shirt. It reads “BRAVE PROJECT” meaning “Building Resiliency and Vital Equality” and displays the Lumbee Tribe’s logo.
Solutions to vaccine hesitancy
There are about 56,000 members of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, DHHS has reported 8,123 COVID-19 cases among American Indians in Robeson County. That’s 39% of all the cases in the county.
Oxendine says they also are trying to overcome obstacles to getting vaccinated like transportation and scheduling appointments.
“We’ve seen that sometimes they just feel comfortable being on, you know, sites where people are taking the time to talk to them and answer some of the questions,” she said.
One of the most common questions providers get are about side effects and having to take time off work if they develop any.
“When you go home and you’ve had the shot, we’re going to have the ability to phone them the next day,” Oxendine said. “We’re going to be able to calm those fears and say, ‘Well, let me explain this to you. This was supposed to happen. And it was part of the process.’”
One thing that hasn’t been a problem is supply, Roberts said. There’s plenty of all three vaccines in the county, but little demand.
“I hate to say this, but I think it’s going to take things like mandates by employers. I think it’s going to take proof of vaccination, for getting into concerts, sporting events, potentially even, you know, restaurants and bars,” Roberts said. “I’m afraid that that’s what it’s going to take to move the needle to where we really need to be.”