A woman from Sumter County is almost single-handedly responsible for raising her town's rate of vaccination against COVID-19 to 94 percent.

Dorothy Oliver is a longtime resident of Panola, Alabama. She has lived there since 1972 and owns and operates the town's general store. The rural area has an incredibly small population of about 400 people.

Oliver told the Thread she recognized the seriousness of COVID-19 very early on. She saw how it could affect people when her niece tested positive on her birthday and died just a few days later.

"Right after COVID started being talked about, I was glued to the news," Oliver said. "I said 'We can't wait around for this.' I wanted to get all the people educated."

 

In Panola, though, the closest health clinic of any sort is more than 30 miles away, and Oliver realized that lack of access and a wave of anxiety in the community meant very few in her town would readily seek out tests or a vaccine.

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Her story is told in detail in "The Panola Project," a documentary made by Rachael DeCruz and Jeremy S. Levine, who were living in Tuscaloosa when they first heard about her. The 15-minute film was published by The New Yorker and follow's Oliver's journey getting her town informed and inoculated.

"We're in this rural area, we've got to fight for our life," Oliver said in the mini-documentary. "[COVID-19] changed everything. Even though we're a small town, it changed us too. So many of them have lost their brother, their sister, their momma and their dad."

Starting in December 2020, Oliver and her longtime friend Sumter County Commissioner Drucilla Russ-Jackson traveled door to door informing residents about the vaccine, answering questions and even driving them to the nearest vaccine clinic 39 miles away.

"As Commissioner, I made sure that State and local County hospitals would come to outlying areas in my district and give vaccinations," Russ-Jackson told The Thread. "First they tested the citizens, then they gave everybody the vaccinations."

Oliver and Russ-Jackson met years ago and quickly learned they shared an interest in getting involved in the community. Oliver said she got her start as an activist by campaigning to bring the first public day care center to Panola, and later was asked to be involved with the park and recreation board. She has since been involved in everything from registering people to vote to getting youth sports clubs organized.

Their efforts to get Panola vaccinated were nothing they hadn't done before. Oliver said she never shied away from going out into the community and knocking on a few doors.

"I think it's the way I talk to them, I go to them and tell them about the seriousness of the situation, how people are dying. I say the only way we can fix is is to get the vaccine," Oliver said. "They ask questions. If I go to them in the right way, they actually start to ask me questions. They care."

It wasn't always easy to convince folks, Oliver said. She mentioned that a lot of the most hesitant people were often younger. She said she had to talk multiple times with a 90-year-old woman who adamantly refused to get it. Oliver was eventually able to convince her to get her shot, all thanks to the trust she built up with the woman.

"I thank God COVID didn't hit Panola as bad," she said. "I think that's because we started this so early."

She explained that the reason that she was able to convince so many people was because of her reputation of community activism and her talkative nature when running her store.

"I've worked for so long, people know I'm a serious person. Whenever we're in a tornado warning, I'm the person they call asking what to do! I say 'I've already got the cellar and the church open,'" she said. "In the store, I get to have personal conversations with people too, which means I get to really know people."

Over the course of 2021, Oliver and Russ-Jackson convinced nearly the entire town's population to get the COVID-19 vaccine. There were four vaccination rounds in the Panola area, thanks to coordination from THEO Hospital Group, Governor Kay Ivey and state health officials.

100% of Palona's residents age 65 and older have been vaccinated.

"That's my calling, I guess. To help people," Oliver said. "I think smaller towns can do this. All it takes is getting out there. Even if it takes a cookout, I'll do it! See me at the fish fry!"

The State of Alabama is less than 45% fully vaccinated and the Alabama Hospital Association reported this week that few if any ICU beds are available in the entire state as a surge of new infections drains space and resources in health care facilities statewide.

Oliver said even in the wake of such an incredible accomplishment in Panola, she's not satisfied yet.

"Now we've got the majority of them vaccinated, even past that 94%," Oliver said. "But we got those few younger people that we'll still work on. I want to see that through."

Alabama COVID-19 Vaccine Breakdown (June 2021)

Each graphic shows how many people are vaccinated in all of Alabama's 67 counties, plus the percentage of vaccinated people versus that county's total population. This data was pulled from the Alabama Department of Public Health, county health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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