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How Danielle Torain, director of Baltimore’s Open Society Institute, fights disparities in COVID vaccine distribution

Baltimore native Danielle Torain, 37, knew that she wanted to give back to the city that shaped her. Torain, who lives in West Baltimore, is the director of the Open Society Institute, a foundation that aims to meet the needs of marginalized neighborhoods and communities of color.

When she started as director of OSI in January 2020, Torain wanted to tackle initiatives that address economic inequality and the digital divide, but within two months, her focus was forced to shift to COVID-19 relief.

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“When you think about the past year especially, it has pushed all of us in unprecedented ways,” Torain said. “It can be difficult when there is high demand and urgency.”

Danielle Torain is the director of Baltimore’s Open Society Institute.
Danielle Torain is the director of Baltimore’s Open Society Institute. (DFinney Photography / HANDOUT)

This past January, Maryland was ranked 47th out of 50 for COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Now, the state is in ninth place.

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In April, OSI formed a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, a 108-year-old philanthropy based in New York City that tries to solve global problems, such as climate change and gender inequality, to address inequities in the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine.

People in the Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC, community are being hospitalized at rates 2.8 to 3.5 times that of white people, according to the CDC. White people, meanwhile, appear to be getting vaccinated more. Of those who have received at least one dose and whose race is known, 62% are white, 13% are Hispanic and 9% are Black, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“We want zero disparities between BIPOC and non-BIPOC populations,” said Otis Rolley, senior vice president for the Rockefeller Foundation’s U.S. Equity and Economic Opportunity Initiative. “We wanted to take a hyperlocal approach designed with ground-level information.”

As the extent of COVID disparities became more evident, the Rockefeller Foundation established the Equity First Vaccine Initiative, which allocated a total of $20 million to five U.S. cities, including Baltimore, to distribute vaccines to areas without them.

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The foundation has been working with other Baltimore groups. Last June, it gave $2 million to the Baltimore Civic Fund, a nonprofit that is working to bolster opportunities and financial resources for vulnerable populations in the city. The fund provided 300 unemployed Baltimoreans with training and jobs as contact tracers and care coordinators.

Roughly five months later in November, members of the Rockefeller Foundation, along with community leaders and medical experts, hopped on virtual meetings in an attempt to figure out how to get COVID-19 shots to as many people of color.

Its goal now is to have 70 million people of color vaccinated by July 2021.

The foundation chose four other cities — Chicago, Houston Newark, New Jersey, and Oakland, California — for the vaccine initiative.

“We respect voices on the ground,” Rolley said. “The community knows what’s best.”

OSI launched the Baltimore Equitable Vaccination Initiative,or BEVI, with the $1.14 million from the foundation. The amount can grow based on needs.

BEVI provides information pamphlets in public spaces and makes vaccines available at mobile vaccination sites.

“We want to meet people where they’re at without judgment,” said Scott Nolen, the Open Society Institute’s director of addiction and health equity. “People should be able to make their own decisions, but we also want to help remove access barriers.”

With the number of vaccine distributions increasing, their focus shifted.

“It went from figuring out how to secure appointments at mass vaccination sites to finding ways to provide mobile [vaccination] sites. There are people who aren’t going to come downtown to the football stadium,” said Nolen, referencing the state-run COVID-19 mass vaccination site at M&T Bank Stadium, which opened in February.

BEVI is working toward creating more sites in public spaces and workplaces to ensure access to everyone through partnerships throughout the city.

The Rev. Terris King is the pastor at Liberty Grace Church of God in Ashburton. He is one of the leaders of an organization called Act Now Baltimore, a partner with OSI that is helping people connect to information and pop-up clinics to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Since the fall of 2020, King said, he has brought science to the sanctuary by talking with people inside and outside his congregation about hesitancy related to both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines, and the strained relationship between people of color and the medical community.

He would start by asking questions such as “Do you think COVID-19 is real?” and “Do you think COVID-19 is something you can get twice?”

The conversations would end with his acknowledging his listeners’ fears and hesitations, providing information about the vaccine and telling them what to expect, and encouraging people to get the shot.

“I sent people to get the vaccine who didn’t belong to the church that I barely know,” King said.

BEVI plans to address COVID-19 and plant itself in the community for the long haul to focus on other crippling issues such as hypertension and childhood obesity.

“It is our obligation to Baltimore to always keep a lens toward urgent needs in the city,” Torain said. “We want to prioritize opportunities to have partnerships that will bridge connections between grassroot community leadership and philanthropic leadership.”

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