How one woman vaccinated more than 94% of her town and brought attention to rural Alabama

Dorothy Oliver at her General Store in Panola, Ala., on Wednesday August 18, 2021. Oliver has persuaded and helped almost all of her community to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.
Hadley Hitson
Montgomery Advertiser

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Dorothy Oliver sits behind the counter inside her General Store most days, selling canned peaches, cold sodas, Marlboro cigarettes and other items she has in stock. A white trailer in Panola, Alabama, houses the store, and it is the only place to shop for miles. 

When the bell above the front door rings, Oliver greets her customers with a jovial “Hey, darling. How you doing today?” 

Usually, she knows their names, but over the course of the past few weeks, she said more and more unfamiliar faces have come into her store. Most of the outsiders come with a question: “How did you get nearly 100% of the adults in your community vaccinated against COVID-19?”

Oliver doesn’t have a quick answer, but she does have a story. 

She grew up in Cooksville, Mississippi, but in her decades living in Panola, Oliver has become one of the most influential people in the area. She is the vice president of the local day care center and on the board of the community center, in addition to owning her store.

“All of them know me,” she said of her customers. “They come in, and I just start talking to them like I know them. I don’t have to know you to talk to you.” 

Even so, for the customers whose names Oliver doesn’t know, she generally recognizes their faces and isn’t afraid to ask them about their vaccination statuses. 

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“Back in December, whenever vaccination started, I started with it, just about,” she said. “What I did was I went to calling all the older people around in the community, trying to make sure how their mind is and make sure they started thinking on going and getting a shot whenever it got ready for them.” 

By the time doses were readily available in Alabama, there were not any vaccination sites in the immediate Panola area. The closest facilities that offer COVID-19 vaccinations are in York and Livingston, Alabama, and the drive to either town takes just under 40 minutes. 

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Health signage at the General Store in Panola, Ala., on Wednesday August 18, 2021. Store owner Dorothy Oliver has persuaded and helped almost all of her community to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.

Oliver said she wanted to make the process of getting vaccinated as easy as possible for her neighbors, so she volunteered to schedule their appointments and drive them to and from the sites. 

“A lot of them had a lot of doubts, and then I had a lot of them that were excited that they had somebody who could help them,” she said.  

There are approximately 350 people in the Panola area, and according to Oliver’s records, only about 20 adults in the community are left unvaccinated. She keeps a slowly dwindling list of them.

“I know all my people that haven’t got it,” she said.

Moments later, a tall Black man came into the store. When he walked up to the counter to pay for his items, Oliver asked him the question he had heard many times before: “Now, have you been vaccinated yet?” 

This time, his answer changed.

He mumbled “Yes, ma’am,” and Oliver cheered and clapped. The man smiled and nodded his head as he walked out the door. 

“This is one of my people I had a hard time with,” Oliver said. “Praise the Lord. I’m glad.”

Later, the same situation happened with another member of the community, though Oliver promised her holdouts didn’t usually change their minds this often. 

She has walked door-to-door in the community with Sumter County Commissioner Drucilla Russ-Jackson many times this year to talk to her neighbors about vaccination. These interactions have only led to arguments a few times. 

“I had those that were kind of scared, but out of everybody, just one family thought it was a political thing,” she said. 

The son of that family came into Oliver’s store last week, and she told him that he better be vaccinated when he comes back. The man has yet to return, she said. 

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Graffiti reading Panola seen on the side of a dilapidated building in Panola, Ala., on Wednesday August 18, 2021.

Apart from features in The New York Times and on MSNBC, Oliver is the recent focus of a short documentary by The New Yorker called “The Panola Project,” co-directed by Jeremy Levine and Rachael DeCruz. 

“Our hope is that the Biden administration and local public health departments across the country will use this as a blueprint for how to get people vaccinated and ensure that local communities have access to the resources they need to stay safe,” DeCruz said in a press release for the documentary. “Imagine what could happen if we invested in thousands of Dorothys across the country.”

Of all the national news interest and local praise she has garnered, though, only one note brought her to tears. 

“Words cannot express how proud I am of you, Mom. You have been doing this your whole life,” her son Reginald Oliver wrote. “Stay the course. Love you.” 

Follow Hadley Hitson on Twitter: @HadleyHitson.