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As COVID-19 vaccine demand dips, community health centers take the lead

Christine Vestal, on

Published in News & Features

Wohl said he’s looking for individuals who can act as informal leaders. “It’s a trick I learned pretty quickly as a community organizer. Actual organic community leaders have the power to move their networks in a way that an outsider never can.

“It can be really hard to persuade someone to get a vaccination if you don’t have any established relationship,” Wohl said. “What works is when a friend says they already got the shot and nothing bad happened. The strongest arguments I can make don’t compare to someone talking to a friend.”

He said he may go back to the Chinese restaurant in Falls Church and talk to José, the busboy who offered rides to people, about spreading the word among his friends and family. “Who knows. He may be in a soccer league. He may belong to a church.”

Health equity has always been Neighborhood Health’s primary mission, Dr. Basim Khan, its executive director, told Stateline. That’s why the center never advertised its vaccines and never offered online appointment scheduling.

“We asked the staff to work extra hours to make phone calls and text all of our patients,” Khan said. “We realized that with our patient population, requiring online appointments would be a barrier and it would favor people who had the ability to sign up versus those who didn’t.”

Once all of its patients were contacted, Khan said, the health center reached beyond its patient list by partnering with a wide range of other social welfare organizations. So far, the center’s 100-plus partners, which include the Virginia Department of Health, have referred more than 19,000 low-income patients for shots.


In total, Neighborhood Health has delivered 36,000 vaccines. Of those vaccinated, 49% were Hispanic, 24% were Black, 15% were non-Hispanic White and 12% were Asian.

Among the largest community health groups in the country, Neighborhood Health was established in 1994 and provides medical, dental and behavioral health care to nearly 47,000 people. Their patients are predominantly poor, uninsured and Hispanic or Black, and 70% of them speak a language other than English.

Other community health centers have similar demographic profiles and, like Neighborhood Health, are governed by a board of community members. That’s what made federally qualified health centers a natural choice when the Biden administration decided to promote and support equity in its COVID-19 vaccination program, Khan said.

Before President Joe Biden took office, state and county health departments already were coordinating their COVID-19 vaccine programs with community health centers. As the health departments allocated vaccines, the community centers advised them how to communicate with and serve low-income residents, immigrants and other vulnerable populations, said Jennifer Tolbert. Tolbert is the director of state health reform at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking community health center vaccination programs.


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