On a rainy Saturday morning on Shallowford Road in Chamblee, hundreds of people - originating from Latin America to East Asia to the Middle East to Africa - lined up outside the building of the Center for Pan Asian Community Services (CPACS). Some young families, seniors, and children huddled under umbrellas, some wore ponchos handed out by volunteers, and some just got wet. They all waited patiently in the rain to register for a COVID vaccine and a $100 gift card, boxes of food, or both.
In just a few hours, at least 426 people were vaccinated. 200 of them received boosters. The rest got their first or second doses. Each of them received $100 cash incentive cards, courtesy of Dekalb County.
COVID cases in Georgia have more than doubled in the last month, fueled by the rise of the Delta and Omicron variants. And though the Buford Highway event had been planned for months, this new reality has given vaccinations another dimension of urgency, especially in communities where vaccination rates are still relatively low.
In Dekalb County, home to cities like Chamblee and Doraville with large foreign born communities, vaccination rates in some communities are lower than state and national averages. As of December 15, 48 percent of Hispanic residents in the county had received one dose. In the Asian community, the number is higher - 77 percent of Asian residents have gotten at least one jab.
The event, organized by We Love Buford Highway, CPACS, and several other community groups, was part of a wide scale effort to both increase vaccination rates and address persistent food insecurity amidst the pandemic. But organizers say that wasn't the only purpose of gathering everyone on Saturday.
"Having pictures with Santa Claus, hot chocolate, bike raffles, toys for kids... is key to the success of this event," said Natalia Garzon, Director of Development for We Love Buford Highway. "Even in the middle of a storm people came out." She says that working in collaboration with partners and building trust with families to make sure they feel comfortable, is essential.
Guillermo Cesareo lives on Buford Highway and was vaccinated two weeks ago. He lost his vision 18 years ago, but that didn't stop him from opening a martial arts studio on Buford Highway five years ago. He was at the event to help deliver boxes of tortillas for the dry food bags. He says that trusted information is key to the vaccination effort. "A lot of disinformation from social media is confusing people...Many people are really vaccinated for the gift or the hundred dollars that they are giving them ... but we really have to think that it is important to get vaccinated, for the sake of health, for the well being of the whole country of all people."