End COVID Now member Joe Smith addresses the Lycoming County commissioners during a meeting Tuesday, May 11 to reinforce the importance of vaccine education.

Williamsport, Pa. -- The Lycoming County Commissioners today, voted to allocate $25,000 of county COVID-relief funding toward the education efforts of a grassroots, all-volunteer community group called “Let's End Covid.” The money will be a kickstarter for a larger campaign that could adopt a budget between $50,000 and $100,000, all of which, they say, could be reimbursed through PEMA. 

Let's End Covid’s mission is to spread credible, fact-based information in support of vaccination to end COVID-19 in the community.

Encouraged by Commissioner Rick Mirabito, a few group members identified during the meeting ways in which a targeted, widespread marketing approach could influence the greater community to get vaccinated.

Lycoming County has seen a 41% drop in vaccination in the last four weeks, according to Barb Hemmendinger, retired from UPMC's residency program and current member of the Lycoming County Health Improvement Coalition and Let's End Covid. “This is not a big surprise,” she told the commissioners. 

The push to vaccinate the most vulnerable population, those 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions has been successful. Hemmendinger reported that 73% of people 65 and older have been vaccinated in Lycoming County.

The drop in the number of vaccinations given was expected, she said, as the shift moved from an older and health-compromised population to younger, healthy people. 

Now, says the group, the challenge is to overcome mistrust in the science, and misinformation in messaging to encourage vaccination.

Governor Wolf has said that his current order requiring Pennsylvanians to wear masks will be lifted when 70 % of Pennsylvanians age 18 and older are fully vaccinated.

Many health experts, including Dr. Rutul Dalal, director of Infectious Disease at UPMC in the Susquehanna region, agree with that figure as a target. Dalal said that 70% of the county’s population needs to be vaccinated in order for a return to pre-pandemic life.

Let's End Covid has outlined a $100,000 budget for a mix of print advertising, billboards, radio, and digital media focusing on trusted members of the community--doctors, teachers, military veterans, pastors--to advocate getting the vaccine. 

The commissioners were set to vote on a proposed $50,000 budget, but after a conversation with PEMA officials, Mirabito said PEMA may reimburse up to $100,000, prompting the group to expand their proposed budget.

“We want the most that they’re able to give,” said Mirabito. “They’ll fund us if we’re doing something legitimate.”

Commissioners say the $25,000 will come from the county’s CARES Act funding--now labeled as ‘general funds’--of which there is a remaining $1.7 million. They’ll submit that spending for reimbursement through PEMA and ask for an additional $75,000.

“You have to at least have a memorandum of understanding in place before you can proceed with anything,” said Mya Toon, the county’s chief procurement officer. Toon, who was only just brought into the negotiation process, said she was “not yet at the position” to entertain questions from PEMA about how the money would be allocated or managed, as she had just learned of the potential for $100,000. 

Typically after submitting a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to a government entity for reimbursement, Toon said she generally has to wait two to three months to hear back. She came to the meeting expecting a vote on a $50,000 budget that jumped to $100,000 and eventually settled at $25,000 with a plan to submit an MOU to PEMA for the full reimbursement. 

Commissioner Scott Metzger pointed out that 4,000 of the 11,000 COVID-19 cases in the county have come from the 17701 zip code and asked what specifically the City of Williamsport was willing to do to help overcome vaccination hesitancy. “That is a substantial amount,” he said.

According to Let's End Covid, Williamsport City Council members are planning to discuss their contribution at Thursday night’s meeting. A Community Development Block grant may offer as much as $50,000 toward the campaign, but those dollars are not reimbursable through PEMA.

Ultimately, the group is able to develop their marketing campaign using the approved $25,000. “I do not want to make this political,” said Commissioner Tony Mussare, “but I almost have to. If we don’t try to reach herd immunity, the Governor will try to use his power, we’ll have no say in the matter,” referencing the governor’s Emergency Declaration.

“We’ve got to guarantee they can get something going, said Mirabito. “These are citizen volunteers who, on their own initiative, mobilized their collective expertise to solve a problem in the community.”

Later in the meeting, the commissioners voted quickly on a number of expenditures, including a $100,000 agreement with Hiawatha, Inc.

Related reading: Lycoming County approves $100,000 for Hiawatha Riverboat



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