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Atlanta Community Partnering to Ensure Vaccine Equity

By Rev. William Watley and Shauna Markes-Wilson

President Biden’s recent announcement that there will be enough vaccine supply to inoculate the entire U.S. population by the end of May is news we’ve all been waiting for. For more than a year, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the nation, filling hospital beds, keeping families inside their homes, crippling our economy, and preventing children from reaching their full potential inside the classroom. We’ve all suffered—but finally, the end of the pandemic is within our grasp.

As we get closer to overcoming supply issues, Georgia and our country can’t afford to lose sight of the ever-present challenges of vaccine hesitancy and lack of access to care for those in our most vulnerable communities, many of them Black and Hispanic and understandably hesitant to receive COVID vaccines. Distrust in the U.S healthcare system and rampant misinformation about safety and efficacy are compounded by the harsh reality that many people in underserved communities also lack internet access to make vaccine appointments and the means to travel to and from vaccination sites.

Let’s look at the vaccine statistics so far in Georgia.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 19% of our vaccinations have been administered to people in the Black community, yet they make up 31% percent of our state’s population. This is in comparison to 69% of vaccines administered to those in the white community. The report also shows that 32% of COVID cases and 34% of COVID deaths in the U.S. were within the Black community, yet the Census shows they comprise approximately 13% of the U.S. population. This disproportion is also present in the Hispanic community, where only 2% percent of people have been vaccinated, despite being 10% percent of the population. Although emerging research shows hesitancy is decreasing in communities of color, Georgia and the nation must increase efforts to drive vaccine equity—especially within ethnic minority communities at greater risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.

Equitable access is key to building healthy communities everywhere, and right here in Atlanta, St. Philip AME Church, St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church, and Jackson Memorial Baptist Church joined forces with Walgreens and Uber to help breakdown access barriers by going into underserved communities to host vaccination clinics. Partnerships like ours are key to accelerating access to vaccines because no one organization—not even President Biden’s Administration—can solve the pandemic crisis alone.

After weeks of planning, this past weekend our organizations came together to host COVID vaccine clinics between the three churches in northwest, east and southwest Atlanta. We took a grassroots approach and spread the word by sharing messages in church bulletins, posting the news to our websites and social channels and canvasing our communities with flyers. We even invited our eligible city police, fire and EMT

personnel to sign up. The response was incredible. We are delighted to share that approximately 5,000 vaccinations were administered over the three days.

By sharing the news about what we did and why we did it, our hope is that other communities and organizations would follow suit and consider ways to help the least among us. We are overjoyed by the outpouring of appreciation and excitement that continues even now. Patients who were vaccinated were so grateful that our organizations joined forces to bring essential health services into their community so that community members didn’t have to struggle to get vaccinated. This is just part of the solution, and we know that we’re one of many examples of efforts that are underway across the state of Georgia.

We are at a pivotal point in our fight against COVID-19, and we all have important roles to play. There remains much work yet to be done to share information that addresses hesitancy and to collaborate for ways to offer equitable access. As vaccine supply increases, pharmacists and Atlanta’s community leaders will continue working to vaccinate our entire population. But, we need everyone to do their part. When the vaccine becomes available to you, please make sure you become vaccinated.

Rev. William Watley, PhD, is the Senior Pastor at St. Philip AME Church and Shauna Markes-Wilson, PharmD, is the Area Healthcare Supervisor for Walgreens.