Nurses, pharmacists and Coppin students at Park Heights Renaissance free vaccination clinic. (Courtesy Photo)

By J. K. Schmid
Special to the AFRO

A lot is coming together in Park Heights (PHR) and the Park Heights Renaissance Master Plan appears to be firing on all cylinders.

On Oct. 20, in the shadow of Park Heights Renaissance offices, nursing students, nurses, professors, pharmacists and providers came together to offer free walk-up flu vaccinations as flu season approaches.

Alongside the vaccinations on offer, there’s a public-private partnership bringing together community, city and institutional resources to inform and educate Baltimore’s Black residents about the particular importance of flu vaccination this year.

The National Minority Quality Forum (NMQF), a coalition of medical professionals, churches and community leaders started a pilot program on Oct. 17 that makes information, education and vaccination accessible at Baltimore churches.

“Bringing the clinics to the churches in a safe outdoor location can provide parishioners with a further sense of comfort during a trying time,” NMQF said via press release.

“The one-two punch of COVID-19 and the flu makes getting the word out about the importance of flu vaccination even more critical,” Reverend Dr. Terris King, pastor of Liberty Grace Church of God said in the same release. “It is time to change the perception and make it clear why we need to vaccinate.”

“At the end of this season, we’re in our third COVID wave,” Danielle Artis, nurse and Coppin State Assistant Professor told the AFRO. “So, we want you to double-protect yourself.”

In between vaccinations, Ms. Artis is giving mini-lectures to the nursing students at today’s free clinic.

Artis and her students expect an uphill struggle to save Baltimore lives.

“My theory about it is just the historical distrust with the government,” Artis said. “If you can’t get people to just do the flu, it’s even more concerning if a COVID vaccine comes through.”

The aforementioned “one-two punch” of back-to-back COVID and flu illnesses, or simultaneous illnesses, is getting another name: “twindemic.”

“This season is supposed to be the worst, because you have the flu and you have the COVID,” Ike Nduka, a student at Coppin State’s Helene Fuld School of Nursing. “The only thing you can rule out right now, with a flu vaccine, is the flu. So take it, rule out that flu side of the twindemic, and then you’ve only got the COVID worry about.”

Even the COVID worry is manageable, Mr. Nduka said. “If you’re doing everything like the CDC says: your mask, six feet apart, hand sanitizers, wash your hands, this regular stuff, you stand a better chance than someone who is not doing all the stuff.”

The moment is critical, but Professor Artis went on to explain history is weighing the effort down.

“It’s historically rooted in things like your Tuskegee, your Henrietta Lacks story,” Artis said. “I mean, even the number of African-Americans that participate in research. There’s such limited data about us in research. If I was to talk to people in my family who were either baby boomer and older generations, there’s just always been this hesitancy with healthcare, trusting, feeling heard and there’s also things like implicit bias.”

“I had a guy who lost his mom and his dad,” Glory Iyere, another Coppin nursing student on site, told the AFRO. “How did he lose them? His father went to the hospital, to get a test and got nothing. ‘It’s not COVID, go home.’ went again, and got the same treatment, and before he knew it, he lost his mom and his dad, to COVID.”

“The same thing the hospital said was not the problem, and not to worry, was the same thing that killed him. What kind of trust can he have in a system that treated his family that way?” Iyere asked.

Park Heights Renaissance may have found a way to build that trust. In addition to information, education and vaccination, the site is distributing food to the needy and the homeless. On site are also local pharmacists and providers from Rite Aid and CVS. Under, around, and over all this service, the grounds are patrolled by PHR violence interrupters. It’s a corner from where it appears even more services can extend.

The Park Heights community faces a lot of challenges, and in multiple reports since April, leads the city and state in numbers of COVID infections.

“You see COVID is knocking out people, in Black neighborhoods, in poor neighborhoods, now,” Iyere said. “It’s ridiculous.”

“And if you look, what set of people live in this area, mostly Black, poor, underserved. People in the Black neighborhoods, especially this area, we need help. Serious, serious help. I’m not saying it’s gonna happen today or tomorrow, but let’s start from somewhere.”