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If you've got a crack in your windshield, you can find a company to come right to your driveway for repairs. There are mobile services to groom dogs, change your oil and even provide spa-level primping before a big night out.

But until recently, the only way to keep your kids up-to-date on their childhood vaccines was to visit a doctor's office in person.

During the pandemic, those in-person visits plummeted, with potentially severe consequences for kids' health. But thanks to a fast-working team of medical and community health professionals at Hennepin Healthcare, a new way to bring vaccines directly to families has helped close the gap for communities in need.

"When the pandemic began, clinics had limited access, and families were anxious and reluctant about in-person visits," said Dr. Dawn Martin, a Hennepin Healthcare pediatrician. "So many of the families we work with already had barriers related to transportation, work schedules and childcare, and that situation became even more severe as things were shutting down."

The Minnesota Department of Health reported a 70% decline in measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines during the first two months of the pandemic alone. It was a troubling trend playing out across the country.

"We knew we had to do something to help, because the last thing we needed in the middle of a pandemic was something like a serious measles outbreak," said Martin, noting that Minnesota experienced that very measles outbreak as recently as 2017.

Dr. Dawn Martin in Hennepin Healthcare’s new mobile pediatric van. Martin, who is retiring this year, was instrumental in getting the van operating to provide access to medical care for children.
Dr. Dawn Martin in Hennepin Healthcare’s new mobile pediatric van. Martin, who is retiring this year, was instrumental in getting the van operating to provide access to medical care for children.

Star Tribune

So, at a time when many non-essential workers were still baking banana bread and catching up on Netflix, Martin and her team sprang into action.

"The more we talked, the more we realized we had to get wheels out in the community and meet our patients where they are," she said. Less than two months after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, a pediatric-focused mobile unit hit the streets, on May 7, 2020.

That first model was a repurposed Ford Econoline van that made vaccine visits right to homes, outreach events and community pop-ups at Head Start locations, schools and churches. The team quickly realized that a van, as opposed to a massive bus or trailer, allowed them the flexibility to pull right up into driveways or parking lots, and they stayed busy scheduling mobile visits to Minneapolis, St. Paul, Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Richfield and Bloomington.

"It wasn't an ideal space, and it was very cramped, but it got the job done," said program manager Sheyanga Beecher. "I'm only five-four and I couldn't even stand up in it, and because the light was so dim inside, we had to conduct visits with the doors open, which wasn't great for patient privacy."

Even under those less-than-ideal circumstances, the team has already administered more than 5,000 vaccines.

Trusted face, trusted space

These days, the arrival of a brand-new mobile unit brings with it the ability to help the community even more. Known officially as the Hennepin Healthcare Pediatric Mobile Health Clinic, it's a state-of-art vehicle that includes an exam table, comfy seating and lots of storage space. As impressive as it is on the inside, the outside is pretty great, too.

"We were able to get it 'wrapped' with a superhero theme our graphic design team created," Martin said. "The heroes on the outside reflect the diversity of the kids and teenagers we serve, and colorful cartoons make it very welcoming."

While the experience for patients is smooth and seamless, there's a significant amount of preparation that must happen before each visit. Immunization and health records are reviewed — even if they are from other countries and in different languages — and each scheduled child's specific dosages are planned and recorded.

"I give big kudos to our outreach nurse and our community partners — health advocates, school nurses, public health nurses and community health workers," Beecher said. "They help in identifying students, contacting families, answering questions and just generally serving as that 'trusted face in a trusted space.'"

One of the schools already benefiting from the mobile clinic's visits is Richard R. Green Central Park Elementary School in the Powderhorn neighborhood.

Jessica Chicaiza, health service assistant for Minneapolis Public Schools, has seen the difference the visits have made. "I couldn't be more excited about this great opportunity for our families, because many of them were behind on their vaccines, often because of lack of insurance or because they were new to this country," she said.

"Having a mobile clinic gave them the opportunity to have health services they often wouldn't otherwise have been able to access."

Martin laughed as she explained the "roll up your sleeves, get the job done" nature of this effort. When it became clear that an upgraded mobile unit was needed, for example, she took on the research and procurement duties herself.

"I never thought that my job description as a pediatrician would include coordinating the purchase of a mobile clinic, but here I am," she said. Her dogged research led to a stroke of good luck: "I found a vendor in Ohio who had just one of these units left in its fleet," she said. "It had been reserved for another mobile health program, and they had cancelled their order."

Martin jumped on the opportunity to put that last, lonely vehicle into service for Minnesota kids. For $185,000, the van was purchased, arriving in downtown Minneapolis in mid-April.

"We're wholeheartedly excited," Beecher said. "This is probably the flashiest thing that's ever happened to our team, and we owe so much to our generous donors. Hennepin Health reinvestment funded the purchase of the mobile unit, and Blue Cross Blue Shield, a longstanding donor, not only has provided funds since 2020, but also has dedicated a team to help us grow in our first couple years."

Beneath the colorful comics and the shiny new setup, the foundation of this project is all about making things better for the community.

"So much of our work is about improving health equity," Martin said. "This project is anchored in our core tenets of increasing access, building trust and strengthening community. We're so very proud of the trusted community relationships we've established and manage to sustain, and of the overwhelmingly positive feedback from families we've served."

For Martin, who is retiring July 1, the success of this effort is a fitting capstone to a career of service and healing. "I can't imagine a better way to transition to retirement, just as this new unit is hitting the streets," she said.

"It's been a highlight of my career, and I've honestly never worked with such a strong, committed team. We solved problems, adapted and made it happen. And while I know that even with gaps in childhood immunizations and well-child visits decreasing, the communities we serve are still grappling with barriers to health care. This mobile clinic has an important place in providing care for our community going forward."

Julie Kendrick is a Minneapolis-based writer with bylines in HuffPost, EatingWell, the Costco Connection magazine and other titles. Follow her on Twitter at @KendrickWorks.