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Partnering with churches, Maryland officials push pop-up clinics as way to address vaccine inequity

Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, Maryland National Guard Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead and Archbishop William Lori watch as Covid-19 vaccines are given during one of The Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force’s pop-up clinics at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ church in Baltimore.
Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, Maryland National Guard Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead and Archbishop William Lori watch as Covid-19 vaccines are given during one of The Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force’s pop-up clinics at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ church in Baltimore. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Calling the pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinic at a Southeast Baltimore church a first step in closing the gap in racial equity during Maryland’s vaccine rollout, state officials said such events will be an integral part of the state’s outreach efforts to neighborhoods hit hardest by the coronavirus.

“This is kind of a start,” said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, standing in the gymnasium of Archbishop Borders School behind the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Highlandtown, as a stream of patients, mostly Latino, lined up to receive vaccines from Johns Hopkins Medicine nurses.

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The pop-up clinic, hosted by church leaders of the largely Spanish-speaking parish, was among the first announced this week by Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration, part of an effort to bring vaccines to Black and Latino communities that have suffered more widespread infections than white Marylanders and have received fewer vaccine doses.

Maryland’s vaccine equity task force has identified church leaders as conduits to reach underserved communities.

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“We’re going to make this a regular part of what the equity task force does,” said Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead of the Maryland National Guard, who leads the task force.

Baltimore is among jurisdictions with the lowest portion of its population inoculated, ahead of only Charles and Prince George’s counties.

Latino Marylanders, who make up 11% of the population, account for 19% of confirmed cases and 9% of those who have died from the virus. But just 4.1% have received vaccine doses.

About 16.2% of Black residents have received vaccine doses, although they account for a third of the state’s confirmed infections and 35% of the deaths despite making up 31% of the state’s population.

White Marylanders, who make up 59% of the population and 40% of the state’s total confirmed cases, have received more than four times as many doses of coronavirus vaccine as Black residents.

White residents also account for more than half the state’s death toll, 52%.

Churches are well equipped for outreach, said Evangelical Bishop Angel Nuñez, senior pastor of the Bilingual Christian Church of Baltimore and president of the Multi-Cultural Prayer Movement, a coalition of about 600 Mid-Atlantic churches, Nuñez said.

Nuñez, who received his second vaccine dose Friday morning at an Annapolis clinic, said he’s trying to lead by example to dispel fears among congregants — something he said is more effective coming from church leaders than from a health department flyer or government news conferences, given the wariness among community members and the hesitance to visit government-run vaccine sites.

Among his congregants, “there’s fear, obviously, that I go and get vaccinated and I come out and I get arrested because of documentation,” Nuñez said.

“It always revolves around relationships and trust,” he said.

Friday’s clinic in Highlandtown sought to give 150 doses, officials said. Nuñez is organizing another pop-up clinic next month at his Bilingual Christian Church of Baltimore in East Baltimore.

The state is looking to add more pop-up clinics at different locations as more vaccines become available, Rutherford said.

An U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel voted Friday to recommend granting emergency use authorization to Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine. Millions of doses are being manufactured at the Baltimore-based Emergent BioSolutions factory.

Rutherford said he is confident that those vaccines will be available in the coming weeks.

With the looming promise of more vaccine deliveries, there have been discussions with churches and nonprofit organizations about creating ride-share services to both state- and locally run vaccine sites for those who lack the means for transportation, Rutherford said, a service some local governments, like Baltimore County, have begun offering.

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