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Baltimore-area community leaders step up outreach efforts to encourage Black residents to get coronavirus vaccine

Amid suggestions that a disproportionately small number of Black people are getting the coronavirus vaccine, Maryland health officials and church and community leaders say they are heeding calls to step up their outreach efforts.

“It’s difficult enough for us to encourage people to trust the science,” said Bishop Donte Hickman Sr., pastor of Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore. “We want to develop centers and places for people to be vaccinated and mobilize people to get vaccinated. We want there to be no excuses.”

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Hickman and other members of Baltimore’s faith community are using their platforms to encourage inoculations, offering their spaces, parking lots and church vans as potential tools for the campaign. They have hosted and joined virtual information sessions, hoping to persuade the members of their congregations to trust that vaccines can protect them and their families.

According to preliminary data about vaccinations in Maryland, about 67% of the first doses administered have gone to white people, with about 16% reaching Black Marylanders. White people account for about 58.5% of the population, and Black residents constitute about 31%, U.S. Census figures show.

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Because the vaccine so far has been offered to very limited categories of people — health care workers, the elderly and teachers, among others — it is not clear any racial group has been underrepresented.

But government officials and public health professionals say the numbers highlight the need to eliminate hurdles that could prevent Black people and other particularly vulnerable residents from having access to immunizations — including misinformation, online registration barriers and clinics placed out of reach for those without access to transportation.

As of Thursday, about 0.93% of Maryland’s population had been fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, during the pandemic, more than 6,800 people have died because of COVID-19. Black people account for about 35% of the known fatalities in the state, mirroring national trends.

The state’s vaccination rollout has been hampered by limited vaccine inventory and overwhelming demand. Other states and territories have faced hurdles as well, with none except Northern Mariana Islands and Guam fully vaccinating more than 3% of their population so far, data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center shows.

Maryland has delegated much of the vaccination work to county governments, creating a swirl of confusion, backlogs and anxiety as eligible candidates wait for appointments to open and rely on often understaffed health departments to iron out the kinks. Seniors and those lacking digital fluency have especially struggled with registering with the largely online system.

In Baltimore County, health director Dr. Gregory Wm. Branch has deployed 3-1-1 phone operators, interpreters, police officers and members of the National Guard to help run the clinic at the state fairgrounds in Timonium. The department plans to add golf carts and wheelchairs there. And soon, it will add more clinic sites on the east and west sides of the county with signage and information sheets in multiple languages.

Branch said he is especially focused on reaching Black communities.

“People of color are the people that succumb to the disease, die from the disease, do worst with the disease,” Branch said. “Therefore I think it’s extraordinarily important to reach those folks. Unfortunately, people are not trusting of the health care system in general, and they may not want to come out.”

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said this week that the city was “redoubling” its community engagement and outreach efforts to answer questions about the vaccine and address any hesitancy around taking it. The city just launched a new vaccination clinic at Baltimore City Community College, which officials say is more centrally located and transit-accessible than another site at Port Covington, which will close at the end of the month.

These efforts come as research shows Black people are more likely to reject COVID-19 vaccines, according to a new study from Northeastern University, Harvard University/Harvard Medical School, Rutgers University and Northwestern University. It found that 33% of African American respondents “would not get the vaccine,” compared with 23% of white respondents, 10% of Asian American respondents and 20% of Hispanic respondents surveyed.

The Black community also has more negative feelings toward vaccines in general, the study found, agreeing more than other demographic groups that “vaccines have negative side effects that outweigh the benefits of vaccination.”

There is more than one reason people might be resistant to federal programs and medical guidance; for minority groups, a common thread is more limited access to health care and dismissive treatment by providers, in addition to historical abuses.

But such sentiments and relationships can change with consistent messaging, leadership and targeted education campaigns, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

Faith-based leaders, trusted community messengers and local governments may be best positioned to address the uneven rollout, Fauci said during a virtual event Monday hosted by Texas-based Bishop T.D. Jakes on YouTube.

Fauci estimates that 70% to 85% of the U.S. population will need to be vaccinated to quash the coronavirus pandemic — including high levels of people from every city, town and community in America.

Soon Maryland will open mass vaccination sites and add new chain stores to the pharmacies offering the vaccine. Beginning next week, there will be 51 pharmacies providing the vaccine across the state, Gov. Larry Hogan said this week.

Starting next week, state health department officials will address distrust and hesitancy through a vaccine messaging campaign promoted by prominent voices such as politicians and athletes, along with town halls and sound trucks.

Even more could be done to ensure that seniors, people of color and low-income individuals can easily access vaccination clinics, said Wanda G. Best, executive director of the Upton Planning Committee in West Baltimore.

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Best said many of West Baltimore’s seniors live in high-rise apartment buildings not within walking distance of pharmacies, grocery stores and health care providers. Fears about contracting the virus on public transit have made some wary of traveling outside the home, and many lack their own vehicles. And some don’t have computers or unlimited cellphone minutes, making registering for appointments all the more challenging.

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She said she and other West Baltimore leaders have been working closely with city officials and partners — including the Baltimore branch of the NAACP and the University of Maryland Medical System — to address some of the obstacles, including education and proximity to clinics. But she said officials should explore more creative solutions, such as delivering paper copies of registration forms to vulnerable areas.

The potential power of the pulpit in the state’s effort cannot be overstated, said the Rev. Derrick DeWitt, pastor of First Mount Calvary Baptist Church in West Baltimore. The church operates Maryland Baptist Aged Home, where there have been no cases of COVID-19.

DeWitt, who got vaccinated first to set an example for residents and caregivers, said the levels of distrust and hesitancy in the long-term care center knocked him off balance. At first, only 11 of the 42 employees wanted to be vaccinated, he said.

“I thought in a medical setting everyone would be on board,” he said.

Knowing what he knows now, he said, the state should use the Black community’s access and inherent trust in their houses of worship to correct course — and tap more church leaders to get involved.

“There is a lot to overcome. There is no cookie-cutter solution. It’s easier [for people] to get to church than to go to a doctor when they are having a stroke, DeWitt said. “This is the paradigm we’re dealing with.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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