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Person of the Year Finalist: Grassroots group pushes back against misinformation

Members of "Let's End COVID!" pose in front of one of their several billboards Front row (left to right): Betsy Reichenbach, Tim Mahoney, Karla Sexton, Beth McMahon, Barb Hemmendinger, Lynn Estomin, Gwen Bernstine. Back row (left to right): JanAnn Todd, Ron Frick, Chris Smith, Joe Smith, Mike Heyd.

A grassroots organization founded by health, education and religious officials and other members of the community, Let’s End COVID! has worked tirelessly to help bring the COVID-19 pandemic to an end once and for all. From billboards to radio and television advertisements, their work to educate the community on COVID and vaccinations can be seen everywhere.

“A lot of organizations, you have a few people doing a lot of the work. We have everybody doing a lot of the work at this organization and they’re very knowledgeable,” said co-founder Jim Smith. “That’s what’s so great about this organization. It’s so different than a lot. Someone says or has an idea, we’ll quickly put it to work.”

The idea of shared responsibility has not gone unnoticed, with Let’s End COVID! Group member Lynn Estomin saying, “I will say that it’s been a real pleasure to work with this group because it is a working group… Everyone has a different expertise and everybody does their part and more. That’s been a really wonderful experience in terms of working with people in the community,” Estomin, who works in creating graphics and advertisements for the group, added she has had many community members ask for yard signs to display on their property, bringing more awareness to the group’s cause. “We had over 400 people that wanted to put those images of trusted members in their yard. We had two of the largest churches in the Black community take signs to be distributed to their members… (as well as) a lot of word of mouth.”

The goal of the group is explained in its mission statement, which is listed on its website, stating that Let’s End COVID! is “a group of concerned people in NorthCentral PA working to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic through education, outreach and mitigation.”

“(We) had a number of conversations about the lack of information out there on COVID, the misinformation floating around about COVID and the lack of coordination that was happening among various groups…,” said Joe Smith. “So, what we did, we were so frustrated that we thought about putting a group together that could address some of these issues to see if there is anything that we could do locally for Lycoming County and the surrounding area to help end COVID… So, (we), went about handpicking people from various walks of life.”

Smith says that in creating a diverse group of individuals to make up the organization, they have recruited individuals from a variety of fields and backgrounds, including the health care and medical communities, the faith community and the educational community. He also mentioned organizations such as Lycoming County Health Improvement Coalition, STEP Inc. and River Valley Health and Dental as partners supporting their end-goal, with River Valley in particular helping to handle the financial aspect of the group’s outreach.

“River Valley Health and Dental Center has long been a supporter of what the organization’s goals and missions were,” said group member Carla Sexton. “Because it is a grassroots organization, obviously, it didn’t have the structure in place to be able to take the funding that we received from the county and from the city and be able to handle that in a very disciplined way. River Valley brought the financial systems and the structure that the organization needed to be able to accomplish its mission.”

The group has spread vaccine awareness and dispelled misinformation through a number of formats, including radio and TV advertisements, billboards and the use of weekly editorials in local publications including the Sun-Gazette, which Chris credits with being used to “identify gaps of misinformation, or where there is no information about COVID.”

She said op-ed content eventually expanded to cover the topics of reasons to take the vaccine and the dispelling of myths and misinformation regarding the use of vaccines in the pandemic, as well as testimonials from different individuals in the community, detailing one from a woman who recently contracted and survived her bout with the virus, who resided in a rural community.

“She lived in an outlying area, she never had the flu shot, never had the flu, she didn’t have visitors a lot and yet she still got COVID. And how she got it was (because) her husband worked in the community…. He brought it home to her…. So that is just one way that we have filled the gaps,” she said.

The op-eds have also helped to show the group that their efforts to aid the community are not going unnoticed and are, in fact, resonating with people.

“I got calls from other people who saw that article and said, ‘I’m so glad that this article appeared (in the paper) because this is what happened to me and I thought I was the only one,'” she said. “… This was even before we got into the billboards and everything else. People were paying attention and I think from all the media that was being discussed, we are having an effect. People are commenting that they see things… That’s the most important message I’m seeing. People knowing people that have been affected by COVID.”

Let’s End COVID! has also made strong efforts to increase public trust in the medical community by featuring several familiar faces from around the area in their educational campaign, often including individuals who may represent communities that are more hesitant towards the idea of receiving the vaccine.

“We were identifying people from different pockets of the community who had different reasons for being hesitant about getting the vaccine. We researched and realized that respected individuals within those communities had more of an effect on getting information to them than say maybe a statewide or nationally recognized individual.

“For example, a lot of people trust their doctors. So we recruited Dr. Redka and some other physicians to billboards, radio ads, tv ads, bus signs…” said Chris Smith.

Speaking about the amount of effort the group put into its messaging and mission, Karla Sexton said.

“What I have seen from this group that differs from a lot of other efforts that I’ve been involved in is that it really is… a grassroots organization and has been able to pull resources (from the county and city) and really put together a whole storm of effort, if you will, to try to get the messages out to the community…”

“We’ve been a flexible organization and I think that many of us are determined to see this through to the best of our ability — to help ourselves, our neighbors and our families resist and persist,” said Barbara Hemmendinger.

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