Black church leaders, health systems organize mass vaccination site in West Philadelphia

Area hospitals partnered with neighborhood faith leaders to encourage their flocks to get the COVID-19 shot. The first of 3 planned clinics was Saturday.

Ruby K. Lane and Katherine Kirby, outside a church in West Philadelphia right after they received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 13, 2021. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Ruby K. Lane and Katherine Kirby, outside a church in West Philadelphia right after they received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 13, 2021. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

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More than 500 people registered to get vaccinated at a West Philadelphia church on Saturday, the first of three planned mass vaccination sites created by area hospitals in partnership with neighborhood faith leaders.

Cynthia Raymond came with her husband to the Church of Christian Compassion, at 62nd and Cedar streets, from their home in the Overbrook neighborhood. She had been trying to get vaccinated for a month.

“This was my best opportunity. I put our names on five waiting lists,” said Raymond. “Then I called my pastor, and I’m here.”

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Raymond attends Vine Memorial Baptist Church, where Rev. Ralph Blanks told her about the vaccination event. Her father died from COVID-19 in May, and a few members of Raymond’s family have tested positive.

She felt an urgency to get the shot. Both Raymond and her husband are Black.

Barry and Cynthia Raymond were on five waiting lists to get the COVID-19 vaccine. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

“There are no options, I have to take it,” she said, seated next to her husband in the post-vaccination waiting area. “If I take it, he has to take it, so now our household will be safe.”

Black Americans are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, and twice as likely to become hospitalized with COVID than their white counterparts. Thus far, they are also statistically under-vaccinated for COVID-19, largely due to both difficulty in accessing the shots and an underlying mistrust of the larger health care industry. A long history of exploitation and mistreatment by the medical establishment has left generations of Black people wary of doctors, so hospitals are leaning on individuals who exert positive influence in Black neighborhoods — the clergy.

“Faith leaders are leaders not only in their churches but in their communities,” said Chris Cullom, president of Mercy Catholic Medical Center. “When you talk about people that are trusted in the community, the faith leaders are at the top of the list.”

Mercy Catholic, nearby at 54th and Cedar, has been treating people in this neighborhood for over a century. It partnered with the University of Pennsylvania Health System to put together its first off-site mass vaccination event, which was preceded by outreach and education programs to convince neighbors that it would be safe.

“There is a challenging narrative out there that the vaccination is not safe,” said Phil Okala, chief operating officer of the Penn Health System. “The outreach is to make sure people are well informed, understand the science, and will work with faith leaders to make sure communities are vaccinated at an equal rate with the rest of the population.”

The first person Okala called was Rev. William Shaw, who has been the pastor of White Rock Baptist Church, at 53rd and Chestnut, for 65 years. He is also on the board of the Penn Health System. Shaw himself got his first shot of the two-dose Moderna vaccine at Saturday’s event.

Rev. William Shaw, pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, received a COVID-19 shot at a mass vaccination event on Feb. 13, 2021. (Daniel Burke/Penn Medicine)

“It’s like gold that is desired, but it is also a procedure that many are hesitant to participate in,” said Shaw. “That’s one of the benefits of bringing this close and seeing persons who may have been hesitant and persons who are not hesitant to receive the vaccine. It encourages the whole community to mobilize and to respond.”

The organizers of Saturday’s vaccine event prioritized elderly people in the 1A and 1B vaccination phases who may be less comfortable with technology. Kat Lee, a physician with Penn Medicine, said 20% of the approximately 500 available doses were reserved for people who were not able to register online.

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Doctors worked directly with church leaders to identify congregants qualifying for the vaccine, and called them to register over the phone. Many others were contacted via cellphone text messages, through which they were able to answer basic questions and get signed up.

“We set forth on creating a clinic that would promote accessibility while using novel principles of no/low tech to ensure we would provide an environment in a day when anyone and everyone would have access to it,” said Lee. “And use this concept to inform additional clinics.”

The system of phone calls and text messages will also remind people to return in about four weeks for the required second vaccination. Lee said there is a telephone hotline people can call with any questions or worries about discomfort in the interim.

Katherine Kirby attends Rev. Shaw’s White Rock church. She jumped at this chance to get the shot.

“I was trying to go online, but I couldn’t make any connections,” she said. “I’m not that computer-savvy.”

After getting the shot, people were asked to sit in a waiting area — wearing face masks — for a few minutes to see if it caused any adverse effects. While seated, they filled out paperwork, and a clinic worker walked them through the process for getting a second dose.

Upon exiting, they were asked if they wanted to take a selfie inside a makeshift picture frame proclaiming they had been vaccinated, then share the picture on social media.

“We really hope they will be ambassadors for this experience,” said Lee. “We hope they had a great day today, and that gets shared widespread.”

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