Coming Together to Get COVID Vaccines to Communities of Color

The COVID-19 crisis took hospitals and communities largely by surprise in 2020, forcing planners to react quickly and develop ways to keep healthcare teams— and the patients they serve—safe from the virus.

Those early challenges helped form new ties and strengthen established bonds among Sentara Healthcare and other healthcare organizations, as well as with community groups, churches, volunteers and government entities.

During the early months of 2021, those vital relationships have played a key role in reaching out to communities of color—the groups most affected by COVID-19—to share vital information about vaccines and, ultimately, to create a more direct and welcoming path for people in communities of color to get vaccinated against the disease. 

“We’re proud to collaborate with our many partners to serve communities of color, to ensure access to the COVID vaccine and provide assistance with other hardships created by the pandemic,” says Jackie Martin, director of community benefit for Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital. “It was important to us to make sure the vaccine events felt approachable and that we were removing some of the barriers to getting vaccinated.” 

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected many racial and ethnic minority groups, putting them at greater risk of hospitalization and death from the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With Martin’s leadership, in collaboration with the African American Pastors Council of Charlottesville & Vicinity (AAPC), Sentara Martha Jefferson set out to reach these vulnerable populations. 

Churches Working Together for the Greater Good

In the early days of COVID, the African American Pastors Council took a lead role in gathering personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies for communities of color. 

“Houses of worship began meeting to determine how we could best serve our community,” explains the Rev. Dr. Lehman Bates, president of the AAPC and pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Charlottesville. “To help address some of the community’s pandemic-related needs, we distributed face masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and other PPE.”

Throughout 2020, the AAPC held events at churches to distribute these critical supplies and equipment. COVID testing events to reach the Black community also took place at Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville, led by the Rev. Dr. Alvin Edwards. 

Martin, whose office is located at the Starr Hill Health Clinic in Charlottesville, and Dr. Jeanita Richardson, professor and director of educational program enhancement at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, worked with community groups to coordinate the testing events, which were initially provided by Sentara, and later by UVA.

Getting the Word Out

As vaccines became available to the general public this year, Dr. Richardson, Martin and the AAPC developed a culturally responsive program to reach communities of color. 

“Vaccine hesitancy aside, when vaccines began to roll out, it was painfully clear that the national trends were being mirrored locally,” Dr. Richardson notes. “Black and brown people weren’t being vaccinated quickly enough, given their proportion of the population and the prevailing risk factors.”

In response, the team developed an information campaign to encourage more people to get vaccinated by tapping into the Your Life Matters Cville initiative, which was designed to get health information out in the Black community. Besides working with churches, the team also reached out to African American fraternities, sororities and other community organizations. 

Crafting the Message

To answer questions and provide information that particularly concerned people of color, the team organized virtual town hall meetings that were staffed with well-known and respected community leaders, including Black physicians. 

“When it comes to messaging, it’s important for people of color to do the talking,” says Edwards. “That really helped with the webinars and Zoom calls we set up. We felt that having Black people speak would send out a very positive message.”

To ease registration concerns, those without computer access or who were uncomfortable with online forms could call their churches directly, and a volunteer would fill out paperwork for them over the phone. Vaccine applications were available in Spanish and English, to help remove language barriers. 

Vaccine Opportunities 

The first vaccine event aimed at serving people of color took place in February 2021. Martin and her task force had a week to line up people to receive the Moderna vaccine at the Carver Recreation Center clinic in Charlottesville. 

More than 600 people filed vaccine applications, and during the first event, more than 65 clinicians, staff and volunteers helped vaccinate approximately 450 Black and 130 Latino community members. Outreach to the Latino community was led by Dr. Max Luna at the UVA Health Initiative. 

Since demand for the vaccine exceeded the doses available at the first clinic, two other vaccine clinics were held at Carver over the next couple of months, attended mostly by persons of color.

A Friendly Vibe 

Organizers wanted to be sure vaccine clinics were inviting, rather than sterile or intimidating. 

“We wanted to create something that had more of the feeling of a community gathering when people came to get vaccinated, as opposed to a clinical intervention,” Dr. Richardson says. 

Martin’s team arranged for food boxes to be available for attendees to take home from vaccine events at Carver and Southwood. The 20-pound boxes, organized by Sentara Martha Jefferson, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank and other partners through the We Care program (see article on page 38), contained heart-healthy staples like oatmeal, canned vegetables, unsweetened applesauce and Cheerios. 

The Martha Jefferson Hospital Foundation also staffed a table at the Southwood event to distribute hand sanitizer and face masks.

Altogether, the Your Life Matters Cville campaign was instrumental in getting more than 1,500 people of color vaccinated within four months. 

“We all brought different gifts, specialties and skills to the effort,” Dr. Richardson notes. “None of this would have been possible without Jackie Martin. Her leadership, her ability to pull together a lot of volunteers and talk through logistics, and the relationships she has built—all of them contributed to our success in getting people vaccinated.”

Providing Vaccines to Cancer Patients

Sentara Martha Jefferson also recognized the need to make vaccines readily available to those with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients, who are also more vulnerable to the far-reaching effects of the virus. 

“We recognized the importance of vaccinating those diagnosed with and receiving treatment for cancer because of impacts of cancer on the immune system,” says Crystal Chu PhD(c), BSN, RN, manager of Cancer Programs and Support Services. “Patients with a weakened immune system are at risk for severe COVID-19 disease, so it was really important to provide them any extra protection.”

Chu notes that between 330 and 350 patients were vaccinated at clinics held at the Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital Outpatient Care Center in April. “We offered two clinics so that patients could return for their second shot,” Chu explains. “So many patients were thankful for the opportunity. Despite being eligible for the vaccine and in the priority group, vaccines were not readily available to them elsewhere due to supply.” 

While the clinics were staffed mainly with cancer center employees, those from various departments, such as surgery, supportive care services, and other patient care services also signed up to help, Chu says. 

“The team effort that came together to offer these clinics to our community and patients with cancer demonstrated our commitment to the Caring Tradition,” Chu notes. “Everyone was willing to work extra hours and come in on Saturdays to do this important work. Staff commented that they felt as if they were a part of history administering the vaccine, and they felt a sense of purpose in vaccinating a lot of the patients they care for daily in the cancer center.”

The Diversity and Inclusion Council at Sentara Martha Jefferson

To help build a diverse workforce and foster community partnerships, Sentara Healthcare hospitals recently have formed a number of diversity and inclusion councils. 

The primary areas of focus are promoting: 

  • A diverse and talented workforce that is reflected in our frontline workers and leadership team
  • An inclusive and supportive workplace by creating a climate of respect, trust, belonging and collaboration, where all team members feel valued and can thrive, innovate and serve
  • Strategically formed community partnerships to advance diversity and inclusion issues within our corporate social responsibility, health equity programs and supplier diversity

In December 2020, the Sentara Martha Jefferson executive team began defining the membership structure for the 22-member diversity council. Members were selected to help ensure that each “dimension of diversity,” as noted by Korn Ferry International, a global organizational consulting firm, was covered.

The council’s first meeting took place in February 2021 with 100% participation from its members. 

“The members of this team are engaged and passionate about pushing forward our ultimate vision: to create a culture where we recognize our differences as our strengths by intentionally fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging, in recognition of our employees and the diverse communities we serve,” says Johnsa Greene-Morris, who is a council member, as well as vice president of patient care and chief nurse executive at Sentara Martha Jefferson. 

“This focus on our current state, both in-house and in the community,” Greene-Morris continues, “will enable us to align with the priorities of Sentara Healthcare and with our system mission to ‘Improve Health Every Day’for everyone we serve.”

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