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Baltimore churches, community groups work with state’s COVID-19 equity task force to increase vaccinations

Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr. of Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore wants the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force to hold a second COVID-19 vaccine clinic at his church after one held there recently attracted about 250 people.

Given the church’s proximity to public transit and its role in the community, Hathaway said it makes sense to use it to reach people who might find it difficult to get to other vaccination sites.

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“[Our location is one reason] why we are using our church as a portal — as a vehicle to provide services to people in the neighborhood,” Hathaway said after a successful vaccine clinic Saturday.

Black and Latino people in Maryland have been affected disproportionately by COVID-19, especially early in the pandemic. Yet these groups are less likely to be vaccinated.

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For instance, while Black residents make up 31% of Maryland’s population and about 34% of the state’s COVID deaths, they represent just 18% of Marylanders vaccinated for whom race is known.

As local and state officials increase efforts to reduce the disparity among marginalized populations, the equity task force rolled out a community-focused plan about two weeks ago. Maryland National Guard Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, who heads the task force, said the group is reaching clusters of people who might have difficulty getting vaccinated otherwise.

“We are successful every day that we have a clinic and we’re putting shots in arms,” Birckhead said in an interview.

With many community and faith-based group express interest in hosting vaccine clinics now that a plan has been launched, she said, the task force is using a number of factors to determine where to go.

“Some of the measurements and characteristics that we are including in the analysis go beyond race or ethnicity,” Birckhead said. “We’re also looking at income, education, single family households [and] those types of indicators, including whether there was COVID previously in that neighborhood.”

She said the task force also is working with local health departments, including in Baltimore, where several clinics have focused on vaccinating the elderly.

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Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead, center, visits Union Baptist Church, which held a vaccine clinic. Union Baptist Pastor Alvin Hathaway, right, leads a tour of the clinic. Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford is second from right. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

People like Valerie Valentine, 72, who went to Union Baptist to get her vaccination, said the community clinics are more accessible than the state-run mass sites like the one at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Valentine, who is Black, said she was frustrated after contacting four agencies to try to set up an appointment and being put on waiting lists. The competition to get an appointment at mass sites is too much, she said. She learned about Union Baptist’s clinic through church members and was able to get an appointment within a week.

“It’s wonderful because they’re trying to look out for the community,” Valentine said. “We need more community centers like this to get Black people involved and get vaccinated. I believe that we have been underserved at mass sites.”

Birckhead said the process detailed in the state’s plan for community groups to apply for help is not difficult.

“It is not convoluted and long. It really isn’t,” she said. “We believe that this is pretty efficient. If [a community representative is] not able to fill out the paperwork, that’s why we have an equity task force liaison go out to help with the process.”

Hathaway said his church and others are exactly “where the [vaccination] services should be.”

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Jenbayi Williams, left, gives a vaccine to Florentin Vasquez of Baltimore, right, at the Union Baptist Church vaccine clinic. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Glenn Blackwell, 64, and his wife Edna, 62, who are both Black, said it was easier to make an appointment with the church because it’s part of the community. Churches have contact information for their members, whereas it’s not the same for bigger corporations, Edna Blackwell said.

“[The whole sign-up process] took about a week, which was comforting,” she said.

Pastor Harold Carter Jr. of New Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Baltimore, where two clinics were held in February and early March, said he also plans to host another clinic. His church already has helped 300 people get vaccinated.

“You see a need, and you try to meet the need,” Carter said. “And I guess the response to the vaccine gives validation that it was necessary, because we had no problem filling the spots for the 300 vaccinations.”

Carl Harvey of Baltimore, left, receives a Covid-19 vaccine from pharmacy student Yeisha Garcia Menendez, right, at a Union Baptist Church vaccine clinic recently. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)
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