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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

The process was taxing, Nuñez said — but worth it.

“I’m seeing hope in the eyes of the people,” he said. “I’m happy I’m seeing the results.”

Luz Candelaria, a grandmother to eight, contracted the coronavirus in June. She had problems finding a vaccine online and through her doctor’s office, despite qualifying for a shot months ago.

She found this appointment through her daughter, a church member. Others she knows have been out-of-luck or frustrated by long commutes necessary for two separate vaccine trips.

Candelaria lives nearby and will be back for a second Moderna dose in May.

Such community vaccination clinics run by the task force are delivering about 7,000 doses a week, officials said.

Despite the church’s success at drawing people in, Dr. Dana S. Simpler, the site’s head clinician, said she looked forward to offering doses in her office. There she could address concerns in more resistant patients.

“Sometimes I can’t talk them out of” their objections, she said, “but most times I can.”

Southern Baptist Church

The people lined up outside Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore last Saturday morning wrapped around the building onto North Chester Street. Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Baltimore City Health Department had signed up about 400 people for immunizations ahead of time but left the door open for walk-ups.

Within hours, they anticipated giving 600 shots.

Leroy Key, 59, had been at home just down the street when a friend, who was one of the 4,000-plus members of the church, texted him about no-appointment vaccinations. Key had signed up at the mass vaccination site at M&T Bank Stadium but was having second thoughts. The vaccine is still new, he said, “that’s what makes me apprehensive.”

But Key hadn’t been able to hold his latest grandchild born just two months ago and, if he gets his second dose on time, that could happen for the first time on his 60th birthday.

 

Less than two hours after receiving the text message, he rolled up the sleeve on his gray collared shirt.

“The only thing driving it is my grandchildren,” he said.

For some the decision came down to opportunity, and for others it was the messenger: Bishop Donte Hickman Sr., who had been advocating for church-based clinics almost since vaccines arrived in December.

He heard from congregants what health and government officials are finally understanding: Vaccine hesitancy wasn’t keeping certain African Americans from being vaccinated, access was.

“When science and doctors can’t be trusted, people have always looked to the community of faith, their churches, to find the right and trusted answer,” Hickman said.

Bernard Segar thanked God, and the reverends and the pastors who “brought it to attention.”

Segar, 56, heard about the Southern Baptist clinic from friends after believing the odds were low of getting an appointment through the state’s system, originally only online. Segar said he’s “illiterate to the internet,” but here he could get critical protection for himself and his 81-year-old mother.

Segar moved through the line quickly from sign-up to shot to a 15-minute observation period, which Segar spent in a church pew.

“I’m going to let some other people know, too,” he said.

That word-of-mouth advertising may help the city achieve its goal of vaccinating 80% of residents — with many people inoculated at sites other than large vaccination clinics.

“You might not have the kind of schedule where you can plan something in advance,” said Dr. Katie J. O’Conor, Hopkins’ director of community vaccination clinics. “Maybe you didn’t hear about it, maybe you don’t even have a phone.

“And maybe you just happened to hang out around here, and if you see this happening, we can get you vaccinated.”

©2021 The Baltimore Sun. Visit at baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.