A woman receives a vaccine from a mobile response clinic in Baltimore, Md. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Nolan O’Dowd)

By Riona Blaine
Special to The AFRO

Baltimore City has a new idea for getting COVID-19 vaccine to underserved residents. In addition to mass vaccination sites, pop-up sites with mobile response teams will be serving hard-hit communities in less than a month. 

Chief Medical Officer of Baltimore City’s Health Department, Dr. Kendra McDow, said barriers such as mobility and online registration make it difficult for individuals to reach vaccination sites. The Baltimore City Health Department is working to eliminate access issues by providing vaccines through mobile response teams, partnerships with community health centers, and reaching out to homebound individuals.

“I think that we as a Black community in Baltimore City want to get vaccinated. There’s always going to be a segment of people in the community deliberating around the vaccine,” said McDow. “We just have to work at the city and state level on how we can decrease the barriers of vaccine access to individuals who can get vaccinated.”

Preventive Medicine Resident at John Hopkins School of Public Health, Dr. Nolan O’Dowd served his last day as the team lead for Baltimore City’s mobile response team last month.  O’Dowd said mobile clinics aren’t for everyone. They are for individuals who have a tough time finding a vaccine or accessing it. Homebound individuals and senior citizens are at the top of this list.

Mobile response teams have partnered with MedStar Health and LifeBridge Health, and they have vans that provide clinical spaces. The team’s initiative is to target neighborhoods with the lowest vaccination rates. 

“Right now, that ends up being a lot of Southwest Baltimore such as Cherry Hill and Curtis Bay,” said O’Dowd. “Pockets of West Baltimore and East Baltimore too are in the category of low vaccine rates, which is unfortunately unsurprising because those are the areas where the city always had higher needs for health and other socio-economic needs.”

O’Dowd also said the city has developed a strategy integrated into “valued communities” to provide education and outreach about the vaccine to increase the interest and demand for vaccinations. 

“Each valued community has a team lead that finds ways to partner with populations that they intend to serve,” said O’Dowd. “This includes many community organizations, non-profit organizations, church organizations, and others to bring people together that they might have the network of and provide vaccine clinics through their networks and infrastructure,” said O’Dowd.

McDow said there hav been a disproportionate impact of hospitalizations and deaths in the Black community from COVID-19. According to coronavirus.baltimorecity.gov, 588 African Americans in Baltimore City have died from COVID-19. 

City health officials are still addressing people’s concerns about getting vaccinated. 

“We have a community engagement group and vaccine listening engagement sessions where we are looking into the community to see what questions individuals have about the vaccine,” said McDow. 

McDow said the health department’s engagement group called the Vaccine Peer Ambassador Program is working with Morgan State University and International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) to train peer ambassadors on the vaccine’s science and talk about its safety and effectiveness with community members.

“Yes, there is a lot of talk about vaccine hesitancy, but people need the information to be able to decide on vaccinations,” said McDow. 

According to a Goucher College poll last month, there is little difference in hesitancy to get the vaccine between whites and African Americans in Maryland. According to coronavirus.baltimorecity.gov, a about 17% of African Americans in Baltimore City have received the vaccine. 

McDow said the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have different effectiveness levels, but have been considered safe and highly effective. However, health officials say it is too early to tell the long-term effects on vaccine hesitancy give the recent news about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The Food and Drug Administration together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommended pause the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this week after six cases of a rare, but severe blood clots were reported. 

Alexis Cobb, 44, of Baltimore, is unwilling to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“I am not sure how effective the vaccine is,” said Cobb.” I want to be sure that the vaccine is going to be effective across the board to agree to take it.”

Nicole Mack, 46, of Elkton received the Moderna vaccine to feel safe at work. 

“I do not think the vaccine will give me 100% immunity, but I think of it as a layer of protection. If it is cold outside, you will keep putting on articles of clothing to stay warm. So, I am going to keep adding layers so that the virus can’t get me,” said Mack. “I wear two masks, I got two shots, and if they come up with something else, I am going to get that too.” 

McDow said the health department is working to change the narrative of hesitancy by focusing on increasing information communities need to make informed decisions about what is best for themselves and their families. 

O’Dowd said part of Baltimore City’s strategy is to reach a total of 48,000 individuals through mobile response teams, representing 10% of the overall goal. The health department wants 80% of Baltimore City residents vaccinated by February 2022. 

Riona Blaine is a Strategic Communication major at Morgan State University