Clergy step up to lead COVID-19 vaccination effort within Black communities

Clergy step up to lead COVID-19 vaccination effort within Black communities
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Black clergy are stepping up across the country to help make the COVID-19 vaccine accessible in communities that have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic.

As several states struggle to close racial gaps in vaccinations, faith leaders are taking the reins as trusted figures in Black communities. Some are teaming up with government officials to encourage people to get their shots and to alleviate fears about the vaccines.

Initial data on coronavirus vaccines show white Americans are getting vaccinated at a higher rate than minorities, despite the increased infections and deaths in communities of color. 

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Black churches are seen as important focal points for potentially addressing the gap.

Derrick Scobey, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, assured officials that a vaccination site at his church could get many people vaccinated.

The church offered 830 shots on Jan. 26, and more than 90 percent of the participants were Black.

Scobey said this was more successful than previous efforts by the city involving online signups for vaccination appointments, in which slots run out quickly and websites are “very difficult to navigate.”

The senior pastor said he would advise institutions and governments seeking to vaccinate more in Black communities to ask pastors to partner up.

“These are pastors typically that baptized that person, that can counsel that person, that married that person, that eulogized that person's mother or father,” he said. “The trust is just there.”

“If the people know that the vaccine is available at that local church, the people will come,” he added. “But they have to know.”

More than 1,000 miles away in Tallahassee, Fla., the Rev. R. B. Holmes Jr. leads the Statewide Coronavirus Vaccination Community Education and Engagement Task Force focused on identifying vaccination sites within minority communities. The task force, formed in late December, had aimed to find 40 vaccination sites across the state by the end of January and ended up pinpointing 86 locations. 

Holmes, the pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, called Florida’s initial data on the distribution of vaccinations by race “disturbing and unacceptable.”

The state recorded that 6 percent of people who were vaccinated are Black, even though African Americans make up 22 percent of the population. 

“I cannot sit back and just allow this to happen as a preacher, as a pastor, as a leader,” he said. “So that's why I had to galvanize our best minds and best leaders to come together.”

“It became a movement to say that if we don't look out for our people, who are going to look out for them?” he added. 

His task force is targeting getting 60 percent to 70 percent of African Americans and minorities in the state vaccinated through offering immunizations at institutions in communities of color that people trust, instead of at stores that may have incompatible hours or may not have locations in the area. Holmes called the effort a “moral charge.”

“This is Black history month,” he said. “We need to make history by saving more of our people.”

A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis published this week found that the 23 states reporting vaccination data by race and ethnicity so far showed that Black and Hispanic people are “receiving smaller shares of vaccinations” compared to their population size and their “shares of cases and deaths.”

Researchers noted these were early patterns as vaccines are not widely available to the public in several places.

Distrust over vaccines between the government and Black communities stems in part from a number of experiments conducted without the consent of people of color. The most infamous of these experiments is the decades-long Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which the federal government researched untreated syphilis in Black men.

This historical mistreatment of people of color fuels concerns among these communities about getting the COVID-19 vaccine.  

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A poll from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases released this week determined that 49 percent of Black adults plan to get the vaccine, with 30 percent saying they will not and another 20 percent saying they are unsure. 

The Rev. Kendrick E. Curry, the senior pastor at the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., said church leaders in minority communities will be vital to the country’s vaccination campaign because of their established trust among congregants. 

The clergy’s role, he said, is to serve as “translators of complex information” to their congregants. 

“If you want to get information through the community, you need to go to the local church to be able to do it, particularly in the Black community,” he said.

Curry, who is part of the National Health Institute’s Community Engagement of Alliance Against COVID-19 Disparities (CEAL), said he tells his congregants that communities of color should “learn from” and acknowledge their past mistreatment but remember to “move forward.”

“We must understand it’s very important to look ahead, and we can't move forward while trying to always look backwards,” Curry said. “We learn from our history, but we also make sure that we get better in the process.”

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Black Americans face greater risk from COVID-19, being 1.4 times more likely to contract the virus, 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.8 times more likely to die from the virus compared to white Americans, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

But despite the pressure to address the racial inequities quickly, Karey Sutton, the director of health equity research workforce at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said collaboration and relationship building still need to be prioritized to get the best end result. 

“There is a sense of urgency, but yet within the sense of urgency, there has to be some type of relationship-building and some way that you can build the trust with community members,” she said. “And that’s something that the Black churches and other faith-based communities have done.”

Government agencies need to be aware that Black communities and churches have a “built-in network” that has the potential to be activated to get more people of color vaccinated, said Curry, the senior pastor in D.C.  

“We have a network that is not to be exploited, but to definitely be shared with, in terms of having credible information and education and awareness shared with it,“ he said. “And we can be a help and a friend if that’s done.”