Ted and Merica Lyons have been pharmacists for more than two decades. They’ve worked through bad flu seasons and events like the 2009 swine flu pandemic. After years in Memphis, they were acutely familiar with the existing healthcare disparities in the community.
However, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, it threw into sharp focus how stark the Mid-South’s healthcare disparities are. And when COVID-19 vaccines became publicly available in early 2021, the couple knew from their years of experience a combination of lack of access and vaccine skepticism could keep many people from getting the shots.
“What can we do to try to help with this problem?” Ted said. “You’re gonna have to go out to the people. You have to educate, you have to find the thought leaders in the community, the people who are trusted, those trusted others to give them some type of vicarious confidence that will allow them to go ahead and be vaccinated. Well, you can’t do that from your major corporations. You really have to have boots on the ground.”
That was the thought that started ShotRx. The couple emptied their 401(k) accounts and started a mobile shot clinic, taking a van out into neighborhoods with limited healthcare access and offering COVID-19 vaccines and education about the virus and the available shots.
“We pray about everything. And when God said, ‘Do it,’ we’re like, ‘We got to do this man.’ So that’s really where it came from. God gave us the charge to do it,” Ted said. “We can put everything we have into it, and it’s up to Him to work it out.”
From a van to a brick-and-mortar clinic
The business started with the main goal 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, spoiled doses, miscommunication and scheduling headaches. Even those who desperately wanted shots struggled to get them for a time.
“We began by reaching out to nursing homes and then reaching out to churches in different areas of Memphis,” Merica said. “We started getting, you know, yeses and yeses… then all of a sudden now, we don’t reach out — everybody’s calling, ‘Can you come, can you come?’”
Churches played a large role in their early vaccination efforts, as did community centers. Later, they started giving out vaccinations at charter schools, which have more leeway to set up vaccination efforts on campus than public schools.
After initial relationships with schools were created, school officials came back to the Lyonses with a question. Many of their students weren’t getting routine childhood vaccinations because they hadn’t been going in for annual checkups due to COVID-19. Could they help with that?
So, last summer they became part of the state health department’s vaccines for children program to help provide free vaccines to school-age children, Ted said. Those include shots like the measles, mumps and rubella, chicken pox and tetanus vaccines.
As they did more and more work in medically underserved neighborhoods, where residents often rely exclusively on safety net medical institutions like Church Health or Christ Community, they felt compelled to go beyond providing vaccinations.
They hired nurse practitioners to ride along on 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 who would have been months out,” Ted said. “We’re looking at how can we be of the biggest help.”
‘We’re here to serve you’
The business continued to evolve and now, in addition to the mobile shot 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, cardiac checkups, medical checkups needed for truck drivers to maintain their commercial driver’s licenses and more.
They received $250,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding from the city of Memphis last year as well as a grant from the city, in addition to donations from other organizations. Recent donations will allow ShotRx to continue to expand, including offering services in Tipton County in the future.
They still utilize the van daily and right now are offering flu shots in addition to COVID boosters. Recently, they brought their van to the Holy Convocation of the Church of God in Christ at the Renasant Convention Center to offer COVID-19 and influenza vaccines.
They hope to not only provide 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 really try to connect with them in a way in which they can completely understand,” Ted said.
That includes simple explanations of how vaccines work and reminding young people that unless their parents have always been staunchly against vaccines, they’ve likely already received immunizations at some point in their life.
“So vaccines have already done a great thing for your life already,” he said. “You probably wouldn’t be very sick if they hadn’t.”
At the end of the day, the overall goal is to provide underserved Memphians with comprehensive and compassionate medical care.
“We’re able to go into communities where they’re not getting the health care that they need to let them know that you are important and, yes, you do matter,” Merica said. “We’re here to serve you and help you and take care of you with excellence.”
Corinne S Kennedy covers economic development and healthcare for The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached via email atCorinne.Kennedy@CommercialAppeal.com.