Alabama Woman, 69, Helps Nearly Everyone in Her Town Get a COVID Vaccine: 'I Feel Like We Saved a Lot of Lives'

·3 min read
Dorothy Oliver
Dorothy Oliver

@lnweatherspoon

In her rural town of Panola, Alabama, Dorothy Oliver is calling the shots.

Oliver has helped almost all of Panola's 344 residents get a COVID-19 vaccine, no small feat in a state where less than half the population is fully vaccinated. As for the handful of holdouts, Oliver, 69, refuses to quit. Even after a year of making phone calls and knocking on doors, "I keep talking," she says.

Since vaccines first became available, Oliver has wanted to keep her community safe. "I went to everybody and said, 'This disease is bad — I don't think you want to take chances.' "

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Some residents wanted a vaccine, she says, but didn't know how to make an appointment, while others couldn't even get to the closest vaccination site, which was 40 miles away at the time. "I woke up every day thinking, 'How can we do it? ' " says the owner of Panola's General Store. "And something came to me: You need to do it."

When business was slow, Oliver started calling residents of Panola, where she has lived for 40 years, to share what she'd learned and to encourage people to get their shots. She offered to assist people in making appointments or even physically getting to the vaccination site.

Drucilla Russ-Jackson; Dorothy Oliver
Drucilla Russ-Jackson; Dorothy Oliver

@lnweatherspoon Drucilla Russ-Jackson and Dorothy Oliver

To make the shots more accessible, she and county commissioner Drucilla Russ-Jackson brought a pop-up clinic to the town, which was the subject of the documentary short "The Panola Project." They needed at least 40 people, and ended up going door to door to get people to sign up.

To persuade them, she used a gentle appeal and kind manner. "The best way to approach people, is not to approach them in a mean way," she says. "I talk to them in a calm way. I tell them how serious it is. I say, 'You really need to get it for your family.'"

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She was never put off by the ones who resisted. "They give me all kind of reasons, so I just continue to encourage them," she says. "People don't know, they really don't," she says. "It's important to talk to them and not demand anything, just to give them some information."

And Oliver refuses to slow down.

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She is now helping 5- to 12-year-olds get their shots and working on getting boosters for adults. Although she would love to get a clinic out to Panola again, it's harder now that vaccines are available in more places, including a hospital 17 miles away.

But, she says, 17 miles is still far for someone without transportation. "If they need me, I will take them," she says. "My work ain't done yet."