Instead of using retirement and the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to slow down, one Fort Wayne woman views them as another opportunity to pursue her calling to help others.
Even as a nursing student, Phyllis Bragg knew she wanted to help more than just her own patients.
After earning a four-year degree to become a registered nurse, Bragg obtained a master's degree in 2008 to become a nurse practitioner.
Over the years, she has volunteered on weekends to perform blood pressure and blood sugar tests at local barbershops and churches in the underserved southeast side of Fort Wayne. Bragg also has shared health information with countless others as part of the annual Indiana Black Barbershop Health Initiative.
Now retired from the local VA hospital, the 64-year-old is busy working with her nursing sorority and Super Shot to organize pop-up clinics, where southeast residents can get free COVID-19 vaccines and boosters. The next two clinics, scheduled for Saturdays in February, will also offer free flu shots.
“I never stopped working, as far as what I do in the community,” she said last week during a phone interview.
Bragg was president of Chi Eta Phi's local chapter Zeta Eta for eight years until she stepped down last fall. She remains program projects community chairwoman for the nursing sorority with a predominantly Black membership.
The local chapter, which embraces volunteering, jumped into action earlier in the pandemic when its members joined a task force organized by HealthVisions Midwest to help people register online for vaccine appointments. They focused on the underserved 46803 and 46806 ZIP codes, where some residents don't have internet access.
Bragg has participated in conversations with local health care leaders throughout the pandemic, including Parkview Health and Super Shot officials. The organizations have provided vaccines for Bragg and her sorority sisters to administer in five previous pop-up clinics.
And she met with Dr. Matthew Sutter, Allen County health commissioner, to work through the logistics of keeping vaccines at the necessary ultra-cold temperature when setting up a clinic or administering doses in barbershops or other non-medical facilities.
“We knew we needed to go out into the community,” she said of providing the vaccines. “They're not coming to us.”
Minority communities have lower vaccination rates than whites nationwide, health care officials say. Bragg hasn't seen recent data for Fort Wayne but knows local statistics have followed national trends.
Road blocks can include a lack of transportation or lack of time off work. But some people who could physically show up don't because of concerns they have.
Bragg knew she and others in her sorority would have to address the concerns to reassure patients that the vaccines are safe.
They gathered information from local and national sources and prepared responses before meeting with the public.
The fact that her fellow sorority members are Black makes those conversations with patients easier, Bragg said.
“They feel comfortable with us asking those questions,” she said.
A frequent concern older residents initially expressed was whether the federal government could be trusted not to experiment on Blacks, as it did from 1932 to 1972 in the Tuskegee study, when 399 Black men weren't told their syphilis wasn't being treated by doctors who instead tracked long-term progression of the bacterial infection. Some men suffered blindness, mental impairment or death as a result, according to History.com.
“There are things in place now that make sure that never happens again,” Bragg told them.
She also assured concerned patients that the vaccine wasn't rushed.
“I would always let them know that there was no step skipped” in developing the formula, she said, adding that researchers were consistently able to get the funding they needed to complete their work on the vaccines.
Younger residents often voiced concerns that the vaccines contained some sort of tracking device, Bragg said. She countered that no tracking device would fit through the small hole at the end of a syringe needle.
“I would let them know, don't rely on social media for your information,” she said. “You need to go straight to the CDC website.”
Numerous local organizations have joined efforts to share coronavirus-related information and distribute vaccines, Bragg said. The network stretches beyond health care providers to include churches, food banks, Community Transportation Network, township trustee offices and more.
Nathan Gotsch, a Fort Wayne native who founded Bring It Up, a campaign to encourage friends and family to ask about vaccine plans, met Bragg by participating in numerous conference calls with diverse groups.
Gotsch, who now lives in Los Angeles, described Bragg as “pretty amazing.”
“From the very beginning, she has been committed to helping people understand why it's so important to get vaccinated against COVID and making sure doing so is convenient and easy,” he said through email. “The two ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates in Fort Wayne – 46803 and 46806 – would be even lower without the efforts of Phyllis and the other women of Chi Eta Phi nursing sorority.”
Bragg has shared with Gotsch the reasons behind her patients' vaccine hesitancy.
“Her wisdom has been really useful to me as I've tried to understand how Bring It Up can best reach people,” he said. “I'm grateful for her advice and guidance.”
“Phyllis is an inspiration to people like me who are similarly committed to raising vaccination rates,” Gotsch added. “Fort Wayne is lucky to have her.”
Bragg isn't comfortable bragging about her volunteer work. She described herself as one of 24 active sorority members working to protect their community from the coronavirus.
“I'm just always trying to think of ways to get the information out there to the community,” she said, “especially since I am a minority.”
If you go
What: Pop up vaccine clinic offering COVID-19 and flu shots
Who: Organized by Super Shot and nursing sorority Chi Eta Phi's local chapter
When: 9 a.m. to noon Feb. 5 and 26
Where: The Anthony Medical Center, 5717 S. Anthony Blvd.
Bring: Identification and insurance card, if you have one
• To schedule an appointment: Call 260-424-7468; walk-ins are also welcome while supplies last