MERIDEN — A COVID-19 vaccination clinic held Saturday at Mount Hebron Baptist Church filled all 250 appointment slots within hours.
“They come from the congregation and the surrounding community,” said Mount Hebron Pastor the Rev. Willie Young. “This disease is no joke and we do what we need to protect ourselves and each other. This is 100 percent faith based. This is the number one protection from the pandemic.”
As the state and federal vaccine program delivers more shots in people’s arms, public health workers, clergy and state and local officials are working to ensure that underserved populations are not at the end of the line. The clinic at Mount Hebron is part of the Community Health Center Inc.’s outreach effort.
The small church on Franklin Street sits in a predominately Black and Hispanic community, a population that has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. With vaccine supply still too low to inoculate everyone who is eligible, competition for appointments is fierce.
The clinic, run by the Community Health Center Inc., was open to those eligible in Phase 1a and 1b of the state’s rollout. That includes anyone over age 55, first responders, medical workers, teachers, and child care workers.
The stiff competition for vaccine has pushed those who may not have access to technology, transportation, mobility and English-speaking skills to the end of the line, despite higher mortality rates in these communities. The Community Health Center is working to schedule more clinics closer to underserved populations.
“The mobile clinics we’re doing around the state generally fill quickly,” said spokeswoman Leslie Gianelli. “People are eager to get vaccinated and appreciate the local clinics we host at senior facilities, shelters and churches. Again, only those eligible for vaccination in Connecticut are able to book appointments.” Disparities
In Connecticut, white residents continue to be vaccinated for COVID-19 at a higher rate than Black and Hispanic residents, according to public health data released in late February.
Only about two-thirds of those 65 and older who have received at least a first dose reported their race, so calculating the vaccination rates of different racial groups is difficult. But according to the data that was recorded, at least 39 percent of white residents have received a first dose, compared to 21 percent of Black residents and 27 percent of Hispanic residents.
“My nightmare scenario is that we have this two-tiered health system where there are people who are wealthy, privileged or connected, and then there’s everybody else,” Dr. Jonathan Jackson, director of the Community Access, Recruitment, and Engagement Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told ProPublica. “Once we hit that saturation point where the first tier has all gotten their vaccines, the narrative will shift to blame. It’ll be ‘Why haven’t you taken care of this yet?’”
Young, of Mount Hebron, has been vaccinated against COVID-19 for two reasons, he said. The first is to protect himself and others. The second reason is to model the vaccine’s safety to the church and outside community. Young has heard about some distrust over the vaccine and the medical community because of past practices against the Black community, or mistruths posted on social media.
“I want to help others understand it,” Young said. “Even as a clergy, I need to set an example. One of the best ways I can do that is to get vaccinated. I want them to see me do it. Even one person is too many.” Family and church
Getting vaccinated also provides a way for the church, family and social communities to reunite with each other. For many in the Black community, their lives revolve around family and church, Young said.
“This has been taken away from them,” Young said. “They have lost loved ones and they are not there to say goodbye. That support is important.”
The Rev. James Manship, pastor of St. Rose of Lima in Meriden, agrees. He would like to gather a coalition of city faith leaders post pandemic to find ways to honor those lost in the community during the pandemic, not just those who died of COVID-19, but those who died alone because of restrictions, and for those who had little support to mourn and memorialize their loved ones.
“We as a community have to ask, ‘How do we mourn our dead?’” said Manship, who lost his own father within the past year. “What are some rituals we can do to bring comfort to grief, to get to some point where they can share it with others and have some comfort together as a community?”
Manship shepherds a congregation that is predominately Hispanic and whose median age is about 43 years old, younger than the population currently eligible for vaccination. St. Rose is working with officials at the Community Health Center to schedule a vaccination clinic at the church as more parishioners become eligible. Until then, he said, older members of the congregation are getting vaccinated at the Meriden Senior Center and the CHC facilities on State Street where many parishioners receive medical care.
“We are focusing our fixed sites such as State Street on our patients; as their medical home we want them to access the vaccine when it is their turn, and many prefer coming to a facility they know,” Gianelli said.Common good
Hartford HealthCare has rolled out its mobility clinics into homeless shelters in the greater Hartford area, and has begun vaccinating homebound patients in its homecare network.
But more needs to be done, advocates said, and as more vaccine doses become available, the various health care systems need to continue their outreach for those who haven’t been vaccinated. Gianelli said the CHC is working to set up more community and faith-based clinics.
Vaccine information in both Spanish and English is readily available from the Public Health Department and on Spanish-speaking radio and Telemundo, Manship said. Parishioners help each other navigate the systems and are anxious to return to church where they can hug and comfort each other without social distancing.
Both Manship and Young say they’ve encountered some vaccine hesitancy among some parishioners but the numbers of parishioners willing to get vaccinated have grown in recent weeks.
“A lot of it is ignorance and social media and silly things,” Manship said. “It really is a moral obligation for us (to get vaccinated), for the common good.”