Ted and Merica Lyons have been pharmacists for more than two decades. They’ve dealt with bad flu seasons and events like the 2009 swine flu pandemic. After years in Memphis, they knew full well the health disparities that existed in the community.
However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, it brought into focus just how stark the Mid-South’s health care disparities are. And when COVID-19 vaccines became publicly available in early 2021, the couple knew from their years of experience that a combination of lack of access and vaccine skepticism could keep many people from getting vaccinated.
“What can we do to try to help with this problem?” said Ted. “You will have to address the people. You have to educate, you have to find the thought leaders in the community, the trusted people, those trusted others to give them some kind of vicarious trust that will allow them to move forward and get vaccinated. Well, you can’t do that from your big companies. You really must have your boots on the ground.
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This was the thought that started ShotRx. The couple emptied their 401(k) accounts and started a mobile injection clinic, driving a van to neighborhoods with limited health access and offering COVID-19 vaccines and information about the virus and available injections.
“We pray for everything. And when God said, ‘Do it,’ we’re like, ‘We have to do this man.’ So that’s really where he came from. God has commissioned us to do that,” Ted said. “We can put all we have into it, and it’s up to Him to sort it out.”
From a van to a physical clinic
The activity started with the main objective of making vaccines as accessible as possible. In the early days of the public COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Memphis, the process was marred by long lines, flawed doses, miscommunication, and scheduling problems. Even those who desperately wanted hits struggled to get them for a while.
“We started by reaching nursing homes and then reaching churches in different areas of Memphis,” Merica said. “We started getting, you know, yeah and yeah…then suddenly we’re not in touch — everybody’s calling, ‘Can you come, can you come?'”
Churches played a large role in their early vaccination efforts, as did community centers. Next, they began distributing vaccinations at charter schools, which have more leeway to organize on-campus vaccination drives than public schools.
After the initial rapport with the schools was built, school officials returned to the Lyons with a question. Many of their students were not getting their routine childhood immunizations because they missed their annual checkups due to COVID-19. Could they help with that?
Then, last summer they joined the state health department’s Children’s Vaccine Program to help provide free vaccines to school-age children, Ted said. These include vaccines such as measles, mumps and rubella, chicken pox and tetanus.
As they increasingly worked in medically underserved neighborhoods, where residents often rely solely on safety-net medical institutions like Church Health or Christ Community, they felt compelled to go beyond providing vaccinations.
They have hired professional nurses to ride in the vans to offer primary care services.
“Maybe we can only see 10, 15, 20 people a day, but that’s still a group of people that would have been out for months,” Ted said. “We’re trying to figure out how we can be of great help.”
‘We are here to serve you’
The business has continued to evolve and now, in addition to the mobile van, ShotRX now has a primary care clinic in Hickory Hill. The clinic provides a full range of primary care services, including weight management and diabetes care, heart checkups, medical checkups needed by truck drivers to maintain commercial driver’s licenses, and more.
Last year they received $250,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding from the city of Memphis as well as a grant from the city, as well as donations from other organizations. Recent donations will allow ShotRx to continue to expand, including offering services in Tipton County in the future.
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They still use the van daily and are currently offering flu shots in addition to the COVID boosters. Recently, they took their van to the Holy Convocation of The Church of God in Christ at the Renasant Convention Center to offer COVID-19 and flu vaccines.
They hope to provide not only medical care, but education as well, especially given the rise of vaccine resistance and skepticism over the past two decades.
“I always give them stories, you know, and I really try to connect with them in a way that they can fully understand,” Ted said.
This includes simple explanations of how vaccines work and reminding young people that unless their parents have always been staunchly against vaccines, they probably already received vaccinations at some point in their lives.
“So vaccines have already done a big thing for your life,” she said. “You probably wouldn’t be very sick if they didn’t.”
At the end of the day, the overarching goal is to provide underprivileged Memphians with comprehensive and compassionate medical care.
“We’re able to go into communities where they’re not getting the health care they need to let them know you matter and, yes, you matter,” Merica said. “We are here to serve you, help you and take care of you with excellence.”
Corinne S Kennedy covers economic development and health care for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached by email atCorinne.Kennedy@CommercialAppeal.com.