In one county, Black and Latinx organizers are narrowing the COVID vaccine gap
Spring Quiñones was getting goosebumps, watching one person after another walk into the middle of this large classroom-turned-COVID-19 vaccine clinic, at St. Francis of Assisi church in Ann Arbor.
“Oh my god, it’s hitting me!” she laughed. Some 200 people had appointments at this March 16 pop-up clinic for Spanish-speakers. And getting it off the ground hadn’t been easy.
Over the course of two weeks in March, Washtenaw County health officials say they leaned heavily on community leaders and activists to organize a series of specialized vaccine clinics aimed at minorities.
And based on preliminary data from the county, it may have actually worked.
Of more than 2,000 people who got vaccinated at those pop-up clinics, nearly 30% were Black, and 11% were Hispanic. That’s a 3x increase for both demographics, compared to the county’s overall track record so far (just over 10% of all doses administered by the Washtenaw County Health Department have gone to Black residents; only 3% have gone to Hispanic people.)
"To see the outreach where it should be, in the most impacted areas - that’s why I'm just elated that it's here," said Alex Thomas, a leader with the New West Willow Neighborhood Association in Ypsilanti Township. "It’s such an opportunity during COVID to rethink how we do things...This is an example of how we can be more intentional about focusing efforts on the places that really need them."
From outreach on WhatsApp chats, to manning the phone lines, to compiling lists of names and numbers gathered over years of working and living in the communities they were trying to reach, Quiñones and about a dozen others (including volunteers, pastors, and neighborhood organizers) went to work.
"This is an example of how we can be more intentional about focusing efforts on the places that really need them."
The goal: boosting vaccine equity, in a state that’s struggling to reach Hispanic and Black communities especially. As of Thursday, Black residents have received roughly 5% of initial doses administered in Michigan so far, at least in cases where racial data was available. Meanwhile, Hispanic residents have received less than 2%.
On March 9, the state health department announced it had distributed more than 35,000 additional doses of the COVID vaccine as part of a pilot program “in an effort to help enhance the state's vaccine equity strategy.”
Twenty-two local health providers - including the Dearborn Fire Department, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Wayne County, and the Cristo Rey Family Health Center in Ingham County - received up to 2,500 doses each. Each had successfully submitted applications, outlining their plans to get those doses to people in areas that ranked highly on the “Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) and had high COVID-19 mortality rates.”
They had two weeks to do so.
Around the same time, Quinones had been in a meeting with her boss at the Washtenaw County Health Department. Quinones, a bilingual outreach worker, primarily works for the county’s health plan, helping residents find coverage.
So she knew that many in the Latinx community had been voicing frustration the past few weeks. They wanted to get vaccinated, but were struggling to find access. Language and technology barriers were making it hard for people to sign up, in a system that felt like it was every one for themselves.
The Washtenaw County Health Department basically asked Quiñones: so, you think you could get a couple hundred Hispanic community members to show up at a clinic in, like, two weeks?
“And at that meeting, I was like...yeeees?” she said, nervously.
Language and technology barriers were making it hard for people to sign up, in a system that felt like it was every one for themselves.
And this is where it helps that Quiñones is the one doing this.
For one, she’s on the right WhatsApp chats: message boards that started off as just neighborhood or community groups, but became lifelines after the pandemic hit, when so many lost their jobs.
“There was a lot of these local crowdsourcing, fundraising happening,” Quiñones said. “[We were] getting to know who are the people that needed money to pay rent, money for food, money for diapers...And so this very informal network became very formalized.”
Plus, she has strong ties with Mexiquenses in Michigan, a grassroots nonprofit led by Maria Militzer. Militzer, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, had spent the past year of the pandemic helping community members find everything from groceries to internet access.
She knew there was demand for the vaccine, and that it was critical for a community with so many essential workers.
“Especially those who responded to the pandemic at the very beginning of it: the ones that were distributing food in [people’s] homes, so that they didn't have to go to the supermarket or that they didn't have to go to a restaurant to eat,” Militzer said.
“They were the ones driving their food, cleaning their houses, cleaning their hospitals where they were recovering from the disease…They were also in the front lines against this pandemic.”
Quinones had to walk a delicate balance: she had to get the word out about the clinic. But if she advertised it too much, it could backfire.
“Because some people are fearful that if we say there's a big event happening, such and such, they're afraid that immigration may come,” she said. “And so that's a big fear.”
Plus, there’s still some hesitancy. Developed during the Trump administration, many in the Latinx community felt they couldn’t trust the vaccines, Quiñones said. Conspiracy theories had sprung up that the vaccines were actually intended to hurt them.
“[Theories like] they're trying to infect us, and they're trying to kill us because this president doesn't like Latinos,” she recalled. “So how do you go around that kind of message?”
By building trust. She made sure to post lots of pictures of getting the vaccine herself on her Facebook page, and answered all their questions about how she was feeling afterwards.
Finally, the announcement about the Spanish-speaking clinic went out.
“I was pleasantly surprised! The phone was ringing off the hook! It was 6:00 a.m., the announcement went out the night before. And...this phone hasn't stopped ringing.”
Within a week, 190 people signed up, Quiñones said. Spanish-speaking volunteers manned the phone lines day and night. Militzer and her group created a mass email address for those who didn’t have one, so that when appointment confirmation emails went out, Militzer could call or text people directly to let them know.
At the clinic, one couple - who didn’t give their names - said they’d found out about the opportunity through Militzer herself.
“We were not afraid of the vaccine; we were afraid of the virus, that we could get sick with it,” the man said, through an interpreter. “So we’re very happy that we’re going to receive the vaccine today.”
Ten miles away, another pop-up clinic took place on a windy, sunny afternoon in the giant parking lot of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church in Ypsilanti township.
Pastors at several local Black churches in the area had been pushing the county to hold these clinics in these communities hit so hard by COVID.
Karen and Eric Stevens were one of about 700 to come get their first dose of the vaccine here. The Stevens live just about a mile away, and heard about the clinic through Karen’s sister, who knows someone at the church.
“I gotta tell you, I was nervous,” Karen said, sitting in her car to wait out the 15 minute monitoring period post-shot. “Like there’s already a new [vaccine] on its way, and they’re already saying, something’s going wrong.”
But her husband insisted.
“I didn’t care, I was getting it,” Eric Stevens said.
Karen nods. “Yeah, we ain’t kids. We up there in age. So we got to look out for ourselves. Even though we wear masks, you still got people walking around here, acting like there’s nothing going on.
Alex Thomas is here, too, getting his mom vaccinated. A community leader who works with the New Willow Run Neighborhood Association, Thomas reached out to the workers booking appointments for these clinics to make sure people in that neighborhood were on their list.
He gave them specific names and numbers to reach out to, as well.
“And they called homes, and did calling over the weekend, I believe until yesterday, setting up appointments,” Thomas said. “So it’s really awesome.”
Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, says so far, more than 43,000 doses have been administered as part of the state’s pilot program.
“We have allocated another 12,200 doses for week 3 of the project and those are still being administered,” Sutfin said in an email Thursday. “I do not have breakdowns by race or ethnicity.”
As of print time, it wasn’t immediately clear whether MDHHS is even collecting that information from providers. But in Washtenaw County, organizers are hopeful their experiences indicate that it’s possible to move the needle on vaccine equity.