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Closing the COVID vaccine gap: Small clinics at churches and apartment buildings reach vulnerable residents

Meredith Cohn and Alex Mann, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Health & Fitness

BALTIMORE – Joanne Bennet eagerly slipped off the blue jacket covering her right arm so a nurse could inject a dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Bennet was all smiles, despite a dislike of needles, sitting in a chair in a community room of her own apartment building.

“It’ll be nice to get back to a little bit of normal after being incarcerated,” said the 68-year-old resident of Bolton North apartments in Midtown Baltimore. “I call it incarcerated, but it was really me spending the past year in my apartment.”

Four months after vaccinations began, everyone in Maryland age 16 and older is eligible, and tens of thousands of people are getting shots daily at mass vaccination sites, pharmacies and elsewhere.

Some like Bennet qualified weeks ago because of their age or health condition, but still hadn’t been vaccinated for reasons public health officials are struggling to understand and address. Such lapses not only threaten the lives of some most at risk from the virus, but potentially are delaying the pandemic’s end.

So health and government leaders have begun targeting pockets of underserved older adults, African Americans, non-English speakers and the disabled. They are running small clinics in apartment buildings and churches and using mobile vans. They’re even going door-to-door.

“We’re about that strategic, on-the-ground tactical operation, getting shots in arms in people where they are,” said Maryland National Guard Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, who heads the state’s Vaccine Equity Task Force.

 

The tactics in some ways mirror early efforts, when vaccinators went to nursing homes to stem the tide of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. Close to 80% of older adults now have gotten at least one dose of vaccine.

But those efforts weren’t aimed at the homebound or others living outside institutions. And mass vaccination efforts often aren’t reaching minority groups. White people in Maryland are still getting vaccinated at a much higher rate than Black people. Latino Marylanders, about 10% of the population, have received under 6% of the immunizations.

In places prioritizing equity, the disparities are less severe. Baltimore City, which Gov. Larry Hogan once blasted for its vaccine distribution, has vaccinated a higher proportion of Black people than nearly every other county, according to state data.

Equity has been such an issue nationally that a group of Yale University professors recently proposed holding clinics at Dollar General stores because they “would greatly decrease the distance to vaccines for both low-income and minority households.” These vaccination efforts are not just challenging, but also more labor-intensive and expensive.

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