Shirley Hill rolled up her right sleeve for a COVID-19 vaccination Wednesday when doses were ready for her and 49 others at the Temple of Praise church in Kenly.
Hill, 75, had been trying to get a vaccine appointment closer to her home in Goldsboro, but couldn’t even get on a waiting list.
“They’ve been so booked up, they won’t even take your name,” she said.
Temple of Praise, an African– American church in the town of fewer than 2,000 people in Johnston and Wilson counties, hosted a COVID-19 vaccination clinic this week.
UNC Health has taken COVID-19 vaccines to two churches and a community center in Johnston County this month, with a goal to reach Black residents who are missing out on shots.
State officials say they are emphasizing speed and equity as they distribute vaccines. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an exceptionally large toll on Black and Latinx residents. Black residents are more likely to die of COVID-19 complications, and Latinx residents have become infected at higher rates.
Though numbers have improved since people started getting vaccinated in December, white residents are still receiving a disproportionate share of vaccines.
White residents are 68% of the state population but have received 78% of COVID-19 vaccine first doses that the state has distributed, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services’ latest information. Black residents make up 21.5% of the state population, and have received 14.8% of the COVID-19 vaccine first doses. Latinx residents compose nearly 10% of the population and have received 2.4% of vaccine doses.
To help shrink the disparities, hospitals and health departments are bringing vaccines to sites that are easier for Black, Latinx, and Native American residents to reach. They are also using connections with community leaders to help spread the word about available vaccination appointments.
Working with community leaders was key to reaching people who don’t have internet access or were wary of the vaccine, said Eleanor Wertman, program manager for community health in the UNC Health Alliance.
People who may be eligible to be vaccinated are contacted by people they know, whom UNC calls “community partners.” Those interested in getting vaccinated agreed to have their names passed on to a health worker, who called them to make the appointments.
“Faith leaders are a huge source of health information and are trusted,” Wertman said. A clinic set up at a Selma church vaccinated 100 people per day over three days earlier this month.
“We had interest from folks we never would have reached otherwise,” Wertman said. “It’s a great vindication for why we need to do this in a way that’s visible.”
In Kenly, UNC worked with Town Council member LaWanda Neal, whose parents lead Temple of Praise.
Louella Neal, the church’s first lady and LaWanda Neal’s mother, said they were eager to host the clinic. “We thought it was a great idea,” she said. “Our church is not just about the soul of the people, but their health too.”
Louella Neal said that everyone she told about the clinic was eager to be vaccinated. “They said they had been trying but they weren’t able to get it.”
Patrick Suarez, a member of the Meherrin Tribal Council, was inspired to bring vaccines to members after his mother waited in a line for four hours to be vaccinated earlier this month, only to be turned away.
The Meherrin Tribe, Albemarle Regional Health Services and Vidant Health arranged a vaccine clinic last weekend for the Meherrin people on tribal grounds in Ahoskie. The Meherrin Tribe is the smallest of the state’s eight recognized tribes, Suarez said, with members in four rural counties along the border with Virginia.
“Even in the freezing rain, we vaccinated 68 people,” Suarez said in an email.
Community health workers were key to getting Latinx residents to a pop-up clinic last week when Duke Health said it would make 150 doses of vaccine available.
Latin-19, an advocacy group that includes a number of Duke doctors among its founders, helped lead the effort. Latin-19 has been working for months to get information about the pandemic to Latinx residents and increase testing in those communities.
With a few days’ notice, the Latinx community in Durham pulled together to make appointments for older residents. They found a location – the Latino Community Credit Union – and made sure people could get there. People walking in for their shots were greeted with music at the credit union entrance.
Personal contacts were critically important to the clinic’s success, said Dr. Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti, one of Latin-19’s founders.
“That’s what really makes a difference, getting people to really trust,” she said.
Community health workers from La Semilla and El Centro Hispano, who had been working in communities for months, contacted people for appointments.
La Semilla, a new United Methodist community, calls its community health workers “rapid response operators,” said Pastor Edgar Vergara. “They are an important part of the puzzle in reaching marginalized communities,” he said.
The rapid response operators have already been working with families to connect them to food resources and other necessities, and knew people 65 and older who would be eligible for the vaccine. As they called to make appointments, the workers could answer questions, ease any anxieties and make sure people had a way to get to downtown Durham, Vergara said.
The state will face another test later this month when it begins the next phase of the vaccination rollout. Teachers and other school employees as well as child care center workers can begin getting COVID-19 vaccines on Feb. 24. The eligibility pool will widen again on March 10, when grocery store and restaurant workers, factory workers, firefighters, agricultural workers and others deemed frontline essential workers, can get shots.
It will take more than online registration links to get vaccines to everyone who is eligible, Vergara said.
“This is a monumental task,” Vergara said. “There are millions of vaccines coming in. It requires collaboration, joint efforts, and good communication so everyone has good information.”