Healthy Savannah Announces New Direction in Community Health Advocate Training on April 6

(SAVANNAH, GA) How do you reach out to people who are weary or wary of talking about vaccines with a message that helps build trust? That’s the challenge Healthy Savannah and the YMCA of Coastal Georgia plan to put to the test on Saturday, April 6.

The organizations are inviting community members interested in health equity to an in-person panel discussion and training event from 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. at the Vaden Automotive corporate office building at 12020 Abercorn in Savannah. Seating is limited, and those interested in attending are asked to register by emailing The discussion will also be streamed live on Healthy Savannah’s Facebook page.

The event is made possible through funding from a five-year Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) grant issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Sept. 2023 to Healthy Savannah and the YMCA as the local grant administrators.

Starting at 9:30 a.m., healthcare professionals who work with Savannah-area priority populations daily will lead a panel discussion on the realities of access, awareness, and acceptance of adult vaccines including COVID-19 and flu.

The panel is expected to include school nurse Cecilia Kurtz, a public health nurse with the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System and president of the nurses’ guild ministry with First Bryan Baptist Church, and other medical professionals who will speak about the disparity that exists for many adults with health conditions who also might have a level of mistrust of medical intervention or government oversight.

“When it comes to their healthcare journey, the biggest deterrent for many people is mistrust,” said Dr. Elsie Smalls, operations manager. “We know we must listen to what they have to say so we can help them respond and communicate within their communities with more agency, better access, preparation, and greater understanding about their own health.”

Another challenge to be discussed is the misconception that the COVID-19 threat is over.

“No one wants to talk about COVID anymore even though the threat is still very real,” said Smalls. “We’re in a better situation, but we’re not out of the woods.”

According to the CDC, most people have developed a level of immunity to the virus because of prior infection or vaccination. In February, the organization loosened isolation recommendations, acknowledging how much the COVID-19 landscape has changed since the virus emerged four years ago, killing nearly 1.2 million people in the United States. []

The local REACH team is also hoping the event will provide a platform for people to talk openly about racial disparities in healthcare that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the African American Wellness Project, Coronavirus has disproportionately impacted Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Indigenous people. The group says Black Americans are especially at risk, being 1.1 times more likely to get infected with COVID, 2.3 times more likely to be hospitalized and 1.7 times more likely to die from COVID-19 when compared with their white counterparts.[]

While recent CDC metrics show a decline in hospital admissions and emergency department visits, they also indicate wastewater viral activity levels, which represent both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections, remain high but are trending downward in all regions except the South. []

“This downward trend should not suggest that we ignore the threat of COVID-19 but it should inspire a more practical approach, something similar to the guidelines we’re familiar with now on avoiding transmitting flu and RSV,” said Nichele Hoskins, communication manager. “That’s why we remain committed to training community health advocates who can relate to the health inequities that Black and Hispanic Savannahians experience.”

Following the panel session, Healthy Savannah and the “Y” will hold a 90-minute training session for those interested in becoming Community Health Advocates (CHAs). This will be the seventh cohort of the series but the first in-person training to be held since the program began in 2021. More than 70 members of the community have previously participated in six online training sessions.

One of the training program’s goals is to equip the advocates with information to help the uninsured or underinsured learn how to receive free or low-cost healthcare services for the prevention of illnesses from the flu and RSV to shingles and pneumonia. One such effort is the CDC’s Bridge Access Program, providing no-cost COVID-19 vaccines across Chatham County at the Coastal Health District’s Eisenhower Clinic, J. C. Lewis Primary Health Care and several CVS and Walgreens branches through the end of this year.

“In previous training sessions, we focused primarily on COVID-19 and flu vaccine access, awareness, and acceptance, particularly in Savannah’s Black and Hispanic communities; but now we’re broadening our efforts to encompass a wider range of health conditions that make people more vulnerable,” said Hoskins. “Our goal is to provide a more thorough understanding of current perceptions and offer feedback that could help shape public health interaction with people in priority communities.”

In addition to a $500 incentive those chosen to become Community Health Advocates will receive for performing community outreach activities after the training, participants can look forward to sharpening leadership and networking skills and learning about advocacy. Hoskins said many of the CHAs from past cohorts are also still out working in the community, often with civic and faith-based organizations that may offer free vaccines at health fairs and community events.
To learn more or register for the April 6 panel discussion and/or apply for the Community Health Advocate training program, please email

In September 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded a second grant called Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) to Healthy Savannah and the YMCA of Coastal Georgia. $5.1 million in funding is being deployed over a five-year period to be utilized in an “upstream” approach to foster sustainable health equity among racial and ethnic minority populations in low-wealth neighborhoods in areas of nutrition, physical activity and the reduction of chronic diseases. The renewed funding enables work to continue which began under the initial, five-year, $3.4 million REACH grant awarded in 2018, and a supplemental grant awarded in 2021 to increase awareness and acceptance of COVID-19 and flu adult immunizations. Working with more than 200 community partners and organizations, the Savannah/Chatham County project team’s specific goals in implementing the new five-year grant include fostering physical activity by creating greater access to safe places to walk, run, bike and play; elevating the health and wellness of the community through policy, systems, and environmental change; and providing education and awareness regarding adult immunizations, especially as they relate to health disparities in chronic conditions of hypertension, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity. The administrators will also continue to foster stronger connections between people and the healthcare providers who serve them by supporting awareness and use of the HERO Help Me database. In July 2022, Healthy Savannah received the CDC’s 2022 REACH Lark Galloway-Gilliam Award for Advancing Health Equity Challenge. The award recognizes extraordinary individuals and entities whose work has contributed to advancing health equity.

Marjorie Young
Carriage Trade Public Relations® Inc.

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