WASHINGTON – The Rev. Karen Curry greeted the 65-year-old man stepping out of the mobile van with an elbow bump.
“Awesome, awesome,” she cheered.
He was among nearly 100 people to get COVID-19 vaccine Saturday outside the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Washington.
Across the country, more faith-based groups are stepping up as vaccine sites, particularly in communities of color, which have been disproportionately hard hit by the novel coronavirus.
Churches have often been a cornerstone in the fight against inequities and a trusted source of information and guidance during troubled times.During the pandemic, vaccinations have become the latest public service in a health and economic crisis that has seen places of worship offer canned food, clothing, housing and other assistance.
“There’s a comfort level with the church,’’ said Curry, an associate minister. “Familiarity is important. We’re providing what people want and need.”
Faith groups said their facilities, particularly at megachurches, are often good locations for vaccine sites. In addition to being centrally located in communities they serve, many have indoor space and parking lots large enough to host drive-thru services.
Faith leaders said they hoped to serve as critical partners in the largest vaccine rollout in history.
Federal and state officials are scrambling to distribute millions of vaccines as the death toll from COVID-19 continues to climb, reaching 500,000 Monday. Less than 14% of the U.S. population has received the vaccine, and preliminary data suggests people of color are being vaccinated at lower rates than white Americans.
“We need to get the vaccine into arms so that folks are protected,’’ said Kendrick E. Curry, senior pastor of the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church. “The church is often that place that people go to outside of the system. … That safe space is usually your house of worship or some other community-related center.”
Faith leaders push COVID-19 vaccine
Once a week for the past two weeks, staff from the Wesley Community & Health Centers in Phoenix have gone across the street to the parking lot of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. They set up a drive-up vaccine station where residents over 65 years old were given the Moderna vaccine.
More than 100 people showed up for each session. Of those, about 60% were Latino, 5% were African American and 2% were Native American or Asian American. The rest were white.
The area the center serves in west and south central Phoenix has a COVID-19 positivity rate of about 27%, three times higher than Arizona’s statewide average, said Blaine Bandi, CEO of the faith-based group, which is funded in part by United Methodist Women.
Center officials plan to work with other churches to set up more sites. They also hope to host a vaccine day with faith-based groups.
“They can help much in the way churches have been responsible historically for communicating with their congregants about all sorts of things, like voting,” Bandi said. “All sorts of things beyond just God have been discussed in churches.”
Faith groups acknowledge there are challenges with convincing some to take the new vaccine and put aside a history of mistrust of the health care system.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 43% percent of Blacks and 37% of Hispanic adults, compared with 26% of white adults, said they would “wait and see” before getting vaccinated.
In Texas, the Dallas Bethlehem Center has helped residents register for vaccines when they come for a food giveaway. Chelsea White, executive director of the faith-based group, said she expects the city will also ask the center to provide vaccines “which we will gladly, gladly do.”
D.C. Black pastors help fight vaccination inequity
The fight to find an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccination is a frustration residents in D.C.’s Blackest neighborhoods face — experts say due to inequity. Churches are using a little faith to fight for better access.
White said the predominately Black community of mostly low-income residents has suffered during the pandemic and needs access to the vaccine.
“COVID is bad enough for anyone, but when you have this kind of crisis in this neighborhood, it’s just catastrophic and it will affect this neighborhood for years,” she said.
White said historically the community has not trusted the government or outside groups, particularly when it comes to health care.
“They’ll overpromise, underdeliver and then leave,” she said.
‘Our communities can’t get it fast enough’
Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, a network of more than 400 synagogues, has called on federal and state officials to partner with faith groups to distribute the vaccine.
“We still stand ready,’’ he said.
Hauer said faith leaders have seen the challenges and frustrations of people trying to register for vaccines only to find slots filled and some sites crashing. Faith groups have been serving their communities during the pandemic and already have the infrastructure in place, he said.
“We know that our ticket out of this pandemic, God willing if that helps, is going to be these vaccines,’’ Hauer said. “Our communities can’t get it fast enough.”
First Baptist Church of Glenarden will use space in its new Family Life Center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, to host a vaccine site starting next month. Staffers are setting up stations and tables in one of the three basketball courts in the center’s gym.
The church has partnered with other groups in the past to administer flu shots.
“They know that the church is a trusted entity within the community,’’ said Georgina Agyekum Manzano, the church’s health center administrator.
‘We need to get the vaccine into arms’
In Washington, a steady stream of seniors parked Saturday at the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church. Some came by bus. Others walked up with canes.
“The people who are coming are the people who have already decided to” get the vaccine, Karen Curry said.
The church is the first to serve as a vaccine site as part of a pilot program in the city. Throughout the pandemic, the church has also served as a food distribution site and a drive-by COVID-19 testing site.
Inside the church, a handful of seniors who had made appointments through the city, waited their turn and talked to staff from FiveMedicine, which is running the site. In another room, those who had received their shots waited the required 15 to 30 minutes before leaving to make sure there were no adverse reactions.
Outside, a teal mobile unit was parked near the fellowship hall. The unit provided by Learning Undefeated is usually a science lab offering students STEM lessons in underserved communities. On this day, a white curtain inside divided the unit so two people could get their vaccine in private.
In the first three days of hosting the vaccine site, more than 300 seniors from three predominately Black and brown wards with high numbers of COVID-19 cases got their shots at the church.
There has to be an option “that’s not necessarily going to a fire station. That’s not necessarily going to a senior wellness center or to a CVS or a Safeway,” said Kendrick Curry, the church pastor.
A history of mistrust
Whether it was forced sterilizations or the Tuskegee experiment or more current inequities such as lack of access to quality care, some in communities of color have little faith in the nation’s health care system, said Selwyn Vickers, dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine.
“Unintentionally or not, many people of color have mixed experiences in the current healthcare environment,’’ Vickers said.
Blacks and Latinos are three times more likely than whites to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and nearly twice as likely to die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Native Americans are nearly four times more likely than whites to be hospitalized and more than two times more likely to die.
For more information, Black people often turn to the Black church, which has been a “trusted voice for their well-being and the survival of our people in the midst of crisis,’’ Vickers said.
Communities of color are coming off a year when they were devastated by a global pandemic that forced many to continue working on the front lines, and left many facing evictions or burying loved ones, said Manuel Pastor, director of the University of Southern California’s Equity Research Institute.
“You just went through a traumatic experience of the government clearly not caring about you seemingly as much as other communities,’’ he said. “And now they’re showing up with a vaccine.”
Vickers said people are likely to trust medical professionals in their church.
“They’re hearing not only from their spiritual faith leaders, but they’re hearing from congregants who sit next to them, who can speak to them about what they know and what they believe about the science and research and the value of taking a vaccine shot,’’ he said.
Agyekum Manzano, of First Baptist Church of Glenarden, said her pastor, John K. Jenkins Sr., invited a health professional to a recent online Bible study to answer questions.
“One of the things he says is, ‘I’ve seen a lot of people die from COVID. I haven’t seen anyone die or I don’t know anyone who has died from the vaccine,’’’ Agyekum Manzano said. “So if getting the vaccination will prevent you from being seriously ill, it will prevent you from being hospitalized and it will prevent you from death, then why wouldn’t you want to take something like that?”
Follow Deborah Berry on Twitter at @dbgannett