City leadership, including DC Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt (pictured), launched their pilot program for vaccination sites at places of worship, beginning at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church. (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
mgreen@afro.com

Despite reopening efforts, administering vaccines and continuing to encourage D.C. residents to stay home, the COVID-19 pandemic still plagues the nation’s capital, with total positive cases reaching more than 38,000 since the beginning of the quarantine, and eerily creeping towards 1,000 Washingtonian’s lives lost.  With these numbers disproportionately affecting Washington’s Black communities, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Department of Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt, have turned to local faith leaders for help in stopping the spread of the potentially deadly disease.  

According to coronavirus.dc.gov, 38,136 D.C. residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 956 residents died as a result of complications from the novel coronavirus..C.’s African American community is feeling the hardest sting of the pandemic as 74 percent, or 708, of those 956 lives lost, were Black, as of Feb. 7.

However, with the high numbers of positive cases and deaths, there have been more vaccines administered than people diagnosed with COVID-19.  As of Feb. 6, 94,000 vaccines have been delivered and 71 percent (67,688) of those doses have been administered to residents.  Nonetheless, with vaccine hopes, up, Black people are still getting the short end of the proverbial stick.

Black Washingtonians’ (9,967) total vaccination numbers, which include both partial or complete dosage recipients, are significantly lower than White residents (17,520).  

With the desperate need to administer vaccines, stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and the District’s effort to close the racial health disparity, Mayor Bowser and Nesbitt announced a pilot program with the faith-based communities- kicking off at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church.  

“This is a pilot for us to work with a District faith-based partner in delivering vaccines.  The church will host two vaccination clinics for pre-registered residents,” Bowser said.

According to Health Director Nesbitt, city leadership decided to collaborate with churches due to health and vaccine confusion and concerns, particularly in Black communities.

“When we first started having conversations about the vaccine, before vaccines were approved, we were aware of the need to have very focused discussions and conversations in communities of color, and particularly African American communities, because of what we described as vaccine confidence, said the opposite way, vaccine hesitancy.  And for many years, faith based institutions, or churches, places of worship have had the ability to speak to communities of color, African American communities, Black communities, and able to be leaders to those communities in terms of advancing a cause or getting people to understand why their health is important,” Nesbitt said. 

The DC Health Director explained that historically, the District government has turned to places of worship to help emphasize health efforts.

“The District of Columbia has worked effectively with its faith community on a number of health issues.  You think back to the 1980s and 1990s, the faith community in the District of Columbia was extremely instrumental in helping to educate Black people on the risk of HIV, how HIV prevention was very important, and continues to be a part of that movement in the Department of Health.  They also are very critically important to the work that the Department of Behavioral Health does around substance use disorder.  So working very closely with  us, we have members of the faith community that are part of our Scientific Advisory Committee for our COVID-19 program.  So engaging them and including them on our vaccine confidence effort was a natural fit or a natural progression,” she explained.  

Nesbitt said she learned that engaging congregations should assist in registering seniors, as many look to places of worship for clarity, friendships and guidance.

“Part of what was proposed to us was that in terms of registering seniors, engaging congregations and serving as a natural extension of their faith work, the communities in which they are embedded, could help us reach residents, in particular in Wards 5, 7, and 8,” the Health Director said.

With the pilot collaboration, comes a lot of safety requirements to make this unique programming possible.

“We’re still social distancing so you have to be able to register people safely in order to host on your site and you have to be able to have a place where someone can be vaccinated with a level of privacy and divinity to some extent, because, while it’s a very low-risk procedure, people do still want some level of privacy while they’re being vaccinated by a healthcare professional.  And, because there’s what has been identified as a risk for allergic reaction, individuals must be observed for either 15 or 30 minutes after they receive the vaccine, and that needs to be done with some degree of social distancing.  While they are waiting we have implemented a process of receiving your appointment for your second dose, and there’s processes where people have the opportunity to receive some vaccine education and counseling if they have questions. So imagine the ability to have logistics and a layout where you can register people, get the vaccine, and then have some counseling,” Nesbitt explained.

Beyond social distancing requirements are regulations surrounding the actual doses, which also makes the planning of faith-based sites convoluted.

“Because of the storage and handling requirements of the vaccine, the vaccine has to be stored at cold temperatures… It can only be thawed for several minutes before it is drawn up and the person is giving it, so those types of things also limit where these can be done in the community and the skill set of the provider.  We typically recommend that an on-site clinic not be held, if no fewer than 100 are going to be vaccinated on that given day.  And then there’s also some technology requirements on the behalf of the actual vaccinating provider that does not have to be in the church itself.”

However, despite the complications surrounding vaccination sites at places of worship, city leadership is holding out hope that the faith-based collaboration is a strong plan, because if it works, the possible success and positive benefits of the program are monumental- particularly for the District’s Black community.

“If done successfully, if it draws the right community we’re trying to reach, we may expand,” Nesbitt said.

 

Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor