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Carolyn Drake, one of the founders of the Central Valley Black Nurses Association, is ready to administer vaccines to the public. Photo by Breanna Hardy.

published on March 17, 2021 - 2:51 PM
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African American trust in the health care system has been on the rocks for decades. Medical malpractice and social inequalities make for compounded issues in today’s pandemic.

But Shantay Davies-Balch, director of the Covid-19 African American Coalition equity project, is working to restore trust with the African American community. The community organization has launched a vaccination site at Rutherford B. Gaston Middle School in south Fresno to reach a specific zip code of an underserved population.

“One of the most important ways that we’re addressing mistrust in the African American community — and really in all communities of color — is to actually first just acknowledge that there is a reason to be mistrustful,” Davies-Balch said.

According to a clinical commentary by Dr. Lindsay Wells and Dr. Arjun Gowda at UCLA Health, challenges are compounded in communities of color. Many have increased chronic health conditions, lack of health insurance and substandard housing.

These underserved populations in the African American communities tend to have less access to medical care and more concentrated rates of comorbidities — two or more medical conditions in a single patient.

The medical community has also historically used Black bodies without consent for its own advancement and experimentation. The Tuskegee Syphilis study from 1932 to 1972 contributed to the history of mistrust in the medical field on behalf of Black men specifically.

Health officials lied to participants, using Black men to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in poor, rural people. Those with syphilis were never told they had it and were not treated for it.

Fast-forward to today and the medical community faces an uphill battle trying to gain participation from those who need the vaccine most, but are wary of receiving it.

Davies-Balch and the volunteers are making people feel heard from the moment the community receives a call to get vaccinated.

“We have a lot of data that says that people feel more comfortable and are more likely to seek out health care if they believe that their health care will be rendered by someone that looks like them,” Davies-Balch said.

This sense of shared experience gets people in the door.

“We’ve gone directly into the community to hire folks to do this work,” she said.

To break the cycle of representation, Davies-Balch and the African American Coalition have partnered with the Central Valley Black Nurses Association.

They’ve recruited members of the community from organizations, church partnerships and direct referrals.

“That recruitment is representative of different Black communities. Not all Black people are the same,” she said.

The team is diverse, including people who may have a high school education to a Master’s in public health, or someone who’s ready to apply for medical school.

Diversity was intentional in order to speak to a wide range of people. Though it is targeted toward residents in the 93706 Zip Code, the public is welcome once people qualify under their designated vaccination tier.

Unique to this particular vaccination site is not utilizing the internet to schedule appointments. Davies-Balch understands that transportation is also an issue for people surrounding the area.

Communities of color are less likely to have Wi-Fi access. So adding a mass link to get a vaccine appointment could leave people out. Those with access would take all the appointments and those two blocks away from the site wouldn’t get priority.

Though there is no specific data available to represent how much of the 93706 population has come out to get vaccinated, their goal of targeting the community has remained consistent.

They’ve worked with the Fresno County Department of Public Health to generate call lists. These lists come from the county’s interest forms. From there, the county sends the African American Coalition a 93706 list. Churches also contribute to this by giving them a list of people at least 65 years old.

“Targeted, but universal, meaning anyone who comes to Gaston — you’re going to be treated incredibly. But also, we are targeting folks that live in 93706 because it’s an access issue,” she said. “We’re there to serve the whole community, but we’re also there to address a specific barrier.”

The first couple days of vaccination — Feb. 25 and 26 — they administered 250 vaccines each day. The goal is to administer 2,500 vaccines per week. Doses are allocated by Fresno County.

Brian King, pastor at The Well Community Church, was among those vaccinated who said he wants to educate his family and community.

“I’m hoping by me coming here, being an example will show that, man, we have to do something to take care of ourselves,” King said.

Kings said people in his community can sometimes gravitate toward things that can be harmful to them. But when medicine is presented, it’s harder to get them on board.

“Especially when we weigh it out, and how it’s been really devastating to the African American community and brothers of color – our Latino brothers – I’m definitely going to say that we need to get out there and really try to see if we can be a part of the solution than the problem,” King said.

Carolyn Drake, one of the founders of Central Valley Black Nurses Association, has volunteered to inoculate the public at Gaston Middle School.

After inoculation, people are monitored to make sure they don’t have any reactions to the vaccine. But so far, people have responded well.

“It’s been really kind of great to see so many people come out,” Drake said.

She added that people feel more comfortable talking about why they did or didn’t want to come.

“For the Central Valley Black Nurses Association, we know the need, and we knew that we would have to help in this because we knew it was going to be a problem. Now we think that when people see us here, then they have more faith in the system and that’s why we’re here,” Drake said.

Carla Stanley, lead clinical nurse with the African American Coalition, said, “I’ve seen a community that is coming to grips with the fact that it’s a pandemic, that they do have a role to play. And by that I mean we won’t reach herd immunity if they don’t get vaccinated.”

People are engaging by bringing a friend. Cleo Stocker, 106 years old, excitedly came out to get vaccinated.

“As a nurse of almost 30 years, when you can get the community or the participant engaged, then you know they’re going to support your efforts,” Stanley said.

The site has nurses with 30-40 years of experience.

“We do know that the Black and Brown population, they have been underserved, they have had vaccine hesitancy, they’re reticent about being vaccinated,” Stanley said.

She said education is essential to the community’s role in getting inoculated, and explaining what’s in it for them.

“Get the vaccine and get a chance at life,” Drake said.

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