Despite nationwide outreach efforts, vaccinations lag in Black communities

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Dr. Janine Rethy, center, the division chief of Community Pediatrics at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, runs a pediatric mobile medical clinic that gives shots to eligible children on Tuesdays. So far, Rethy said they haven’t vaccinated many residents.

By Howard University News Service

WASHINGTON ––Valerie Shannon, 48, says being able to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma means everything to her.  She will do whatever it takes to get it, she said.

So, she’s enrolled in a program at the Goodwill Excel Center, a public charter school in northwest Washington to earn a GED.  

A city-mandated requirement for completing the program is that she be vaccinated against coronavirus, but when a vaccination team from the D.C. Department of Health came to the school and offered her one, she balked.

“I know I need to get it,” she said. “I’m going to, well I have to, if I want to keep going here, but honestly, I’m just scared.” 

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Derek Daniels, 38, a youth success coach at center did get it, but only, he said, because District of Columbia Mayor Muriel  E. Bowser has ordered that he and other city employees get the shot by early November, if they want to keep their job.

“There was always so much information,” Daniels said. “One week they’d say do this, and the next week they’d take it back. It was never made clear to me.  If I had the choice, I wouldn’t have gotten it, but I love my work, so here we are.”

Nationwide, D.C., states and municipalities have invested millions in incentives and partnered with health systems and community organizations to get more people vaccinated  

In Alabama, getting a vaccine was immediately awarded with a chance to drive a car at the famous Talladega Superspeedway.  In Arkansas, state officials were handing out $20 lottery tickets.

In California, officials held a lottery for 10 vaccine recipients to win $1.5 million each. In Hawaii, vaccine recipients could win one of 50 roundtrip tickets courtesy of American Airlines.  

In Illinois adult vaccine recipients, could be entered into a $7 million cash prize pool along with three $1 million cash prizes and in Oregon, 36 people could walk away with $10,000, one for every county.

In the nation’s capital, children ages 12to 17 could receive $51 gift cards, air pods, iPads or a $25,000 college scholarship or iPads if they were vaccinated from Aug. 7 to Sept. 30.

But despite those efforts and vaccination mandates by President Biden, governors, mayors and major corporations, the pace of vaccines has slowed to a near crawl in Black communities, outreach workers said.   

In Richmond, for example, outreach workers said they are lucky if they inoculate 10 to 15 people on a good day, even as statistics show African Americans there with dramatically lower vaccination rates.  When they began in earnest in March, they averaged thousands per day, they said.

At a food bank in Washington where workers were offering free vaccinations on a recent Saturday, clinicians were getting so few requests for shots, they had to keep taking the medication back to the freezer to keep it from spoiling.

Andrea Coleman, 32, brought her 12-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter into the Ronald McDonald Mobile Clinic in Washington to get their first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

At another location not far away, it was a similar situation, said Bonnie Harris, a vaccine outreach worker with the Department of Family Medicine at Howard University College of Medicine.  Only three people had consented to a vaccination over an hour.

Harris, who goes out three or more times a week, said they are lucky if they vaccinate five people.

Just over  59% of Washington residents are fully vaccinated, health officials said.  Only 33% of African-Americans are fully vaccinated, they noted. African Americans are less than half the city’s population, but they  account for 76 % of lives lost since the pandemic began. 

In Baltimore, vaccination rates are critically low, especially in Black and Latino communities, said Ryan Moran, assistant vice president of care transformation for MedStar Health, a conglomerate of hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices that serve over half a million people annually in Maryland and the Washington, D.C. region.

“Numbers right now are discouraging, but we view every single shot in the arm as progress,” Moran said. “When they’re ready, we’ll be there.”

In Fulton County, Georgia, which has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the state, Karen Rene’, program director and second vice president of the NAACP Atlanta branch.is coordinating a large outreach effort 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded the branch a $2 million grant to coordinate vaccination campaigns in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, New Orleans, Dallas and Norfolk, Rene said.

Rene’, who is also a city councilwoman in East Point, Georgia, said the organization is creating public service announcement videos to be played in the cities.  

It is also working with social media influencers to reach young African-Americans and coordinating with organizations in each city to tie vaccination efforts to local events.  

For example, in Chicago, they worked with an outdoor concert to have vaccinations as a component of the event.   In Atlanta, she said, they are sponsoring their own vaccination concert.

Educating residents and building trust, she said, are key to seeing a change, particularly in parts of Atlanta with vaccination rates below 3%. 

“We have to meet them where they are,” she said, “even when it means literally holding their hands, walking them across the street to get the vaccine and doing it all over again when they come back.”

Temple of Praise Baptist Church in southeast Washington has become home for Victoria Park, 59, a nurse’s assistant, and Benita Bryan, 52, a licensed practical nurse, owners of 5 Medicine,  for the last five months 

Their company other faith-based communities and the D.C. Health Department are partners in the “Faith in the Vaccine” program to provide COVID-19 testing, vaccinations and education.

“We’ve had three today, one first shotter and two second shotters,” Park, said.  “It’s three more than a lot of days. For everyone we get or bit of progress we make, we get knocked back 10 steps.

 “Fighting misinformation has honestly been most of our work.” 

“Better educating people from the beginning would have helped so much especially in these communities where there’s so much mistrust. It’s easier to believe what you heard or saw on social media 

MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington offers vaccines to family members of their pediatric patients.

Dr. Janine Rethy, the division chief of Community Pediatrics, runs a pediatric mobile medical clinic that gives shots to eligible children on Tuesdays.  

Rethy said they haven’t vaccinated many residents. 

“We strive to create a space where they can get any question at all answered,” she said. “Our approach considers how to reach them in a way that’s comfortable and engenders trust.”

Andrea Coleman, 32, brought her 12-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter into the Ronald McDonald Mobile Clinic at Kelly Miller Middle School to catch up on their required vaccines for school. All three left having received their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“I was hesitant at first when they offered it,” Coleman said. “But they answered all of my questions and made me feel comfortable.”

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