Establishing Public Health through the Black Church: The Road to Vaccination for All
By Josephine Reid
Local health departments play a vital role in providing many important public health services in our Black communities. Unfortunately, for many decades, African American communities have been at a great disadvantage in receiving these services.
African Americans have often been dealt a low card in the deck when it comes to the health care system. For example, long-standing inequalities have added gaps in health insurance coverage and uneven access to services that have led to poorer health outcomes in Black communities. In fact, Black Americans are 4 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.6 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. African Americans also start out with health outcomes that are disproportionately poor compared to white Americans.
Addressing Black people’s issues related to the pandemic is the Black Coalition against COVID-19 (BCAC), which is working to keep Black Americans informed about the virus, the vaccines, and the variants through a series of Facebook Live town halls. A recent BCAC event featured Black women in the United States who are medical experts, health professionals, and corporate and civic leaders. During the event, they provided more than 600,000 viewers with important information to save Black lives.
There are a number of health disparities that plague Black communities, including undiagnosed mental health issues. For example, 69% of Black adults with mental illness went untreated in 2018, and 42% of Black adults with serious mental illness were also untreated in 2018.
This is only one of the many lingering disparities that are putting our Black communities in states of emergency.
Shedding a positive light on this subject was Dr. Amanda Cohn, deputy director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) immunization services division. She informed an event’s viewers that they have a valuable health care partner to whom they can turn.
“One of the most important things that we can all do at a federal level and a state level is to support community-based organzations to work with local public health,” she said.
Throughout American history, Black people have been able to turn to their Black churches, which have served as trusted houses of refuge. On the road to gaining equal access to the vaccine into Black communities, local churches and other community-based programs are in place to serve as vaccination centers for African Americans. For example, In Jacksonville, Florida, several Black churches are doubling as vaccination sites. Greater Macedonia is one of four predominantly Black churches in Jacksonville that partnered with Agape Family Health to administer vaccines over the 2021 Easter weekend, a time where pews would usually be full of churchgoers from the surrounding area.
One faith-based leader who is leading the charge to get Black Americans vaccinated is the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, senior pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Reverend Butts, a speaker during a recent BCAC town hall, encouraged Black Americans to team up with their churches to get vaccinated.
“To those who may be a bit skeptical about receiving the vaccine,” he said, “good religion goes best with some common sense.”
In January, Reverend Butts rolled up his sleeve to get his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at his historic church, which also received more than 500 doses of the vaccine for members of his congregation as well as the larger Harlem community. He said he took these important steps to practice what he preaches.
Dr. Cohn of the CDC reminded us that the foundation of all public health starts at the local level. She said having programs roll out at the federal level is nice, but they must also be implemented and embraced by community- and faith-based organizations in order to have a major impact. “We’re looking at so many different options for how we can lean into those community-based organizations [and] faith-based organizations,” she stated. “Faith and community-based organizations were able to reserve spots for folks heading in to get vaccinated. Those are some of the opportunities that are important to keep in mind. There are lots of different roles.”
In addition to the local Black church’s vaccination efforts, other local public health programs that are being rolled out to Black communities across the United States include the following:
• Organizations are teaming up with their state’s immunization partners.
• The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is getting involved by ensuring priority vaccine access for essential staff and people residing in congregate homeless shelters. HUD is renting spaces for vaccine events, transporting people to vaccine events and more.
• The Administration for Community Living (ACL) is providing assistance with scheduling vaccine appointments, providing transportation to vaccine sites, offering direct support services needed to attend vaccine appointments, connecting to in-home vaccination options and more.
• The Administration for Children and Families is providing resources for teachers, school staff and childcare workers to get vaccinated.
These agencies are helping to support local efforts with all their programs that are helping bring equal access to the vaccine in Black communities.
Community-and-faith-based organizations are also merging with science across the country to get more people in Black communities vaccinated. Historically, Black churches have been at the forefront of building the foundations of countless Black communities across the nation. Faith-based organizations have been the leaders in the battle against social injustice, and they are trusted voices for important information and guidance during these troubling times. There is a comfort level and a sense of familiarity within our churches’ walls.
In addition to setting up vaccination centers, Black churches located in underserved communities are going the extra mile to partner with pharmacies to serve Black Americans who distrust mass vaccination sites or are unable to travel to unfamiliar areas. For example, in the Atlanta metro area, St. Philip AME Church, St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church and Jackson Memorial Baptist Church partnered with Walgreens to vaccinate at least 2,000 people during March. Their efforts included free Uber rides to and from the vaccination sites and working with people who didn’t have an ID to ensure their access to getting vaccinated.
These are just some of the many examples of community- and faith-based organizations that are having a big impact on vaccinating our Black communities. Their role is critical in supporting local public health in Black communities.
It’s going to take the continued partnership of the government and community- and faith-based organizations working in tandem to get us across the finish line to beat COVID-19.
Additionally, it’s important that our trusted Black messengers are educated and up-to-date about the virus so they can keep Black people informed about the pandemic and where vaccines are available in their communities. This vital partnership will help make vaccine equity a reality for all Black Americans as we continue to practice public safety measures and get more shots into our arms to push through the pandemic. Together, “We can do this!”
For more information about COVID-19, health, and wellness, visit Black Coalition Against COVID-19, a key health resource for African Americans. To see a replay of BCAC Facebook Live events, a list of upcoming events, COVID-19 information, health and wellness information, and upcoming events, visit BlackDoctor.Org, the world’s largest and most comprehensive online health resource specifically targeted at African Americans.