KENT — Visitors exiting the New Beginnings Christian Fellowship were met with a round of applause and cheers from volunteers stationed throughout the building last week.
Minutes before, they had received their second COVID-19 vaccine inside of the church’s spacious gym, which had been transformed into a standing vaccine clinic. Volunteer medical professionals, many of whom are members of the church, injected patients in a partitioned-off area in the back. Near the gym’s basketball hoop, dozens of people sat at least 6 feet apart to be observed for allergic reactions after receiving their vaccine.
“We like to congratulate people after they get their second shot,” medical director Joycelyn Thomas, a church member who helps lead the vaccination clinic, said.
In a ZIP code where the Black and Latino populations are the least likely ethnicities to be vaccinated, exaltation may be in order. Throughout King County, COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact communities of color. While the Black population makes up 6.4% of county residents, they represent 11.3% of COVID-19 cases, according to recent Public Health — Seattle & King County statistics. Latino residents are 10% of the county’s population, yet represent 23.5% of cases.
Since February, New Beginnings Christian Fellowship — a predominantly Black congregation located at 19300 108th Ave. S.E., in Kent — has operated as a standing COVID-19 vaccination site in an effort to close the racial equity gap in vaccine distribution. Over time, the site has become known for its easy appointment scheduling, and as a place where Black people and people of color are served by volunteers they trust. On May 18, the next clinic will be held for the Pfizer vaccine’s first dose.
From Feb. 20 to the end of April, New Beginnings hosted 12 clinics where 3,505 vaccine doses were administered, according to nonprofit African Americans Reach and Teach Health Ministry (AARTH) data. At those clinics, 62% of patients were African American, 27% were non-Black people of color and 11% were white. Over half of the patients were under 50 years old.
The standing vaccine clinic at the Kent church follows a model used by Public Health and the city of Seattle that prioritizes community partnerships to deliver the vaccine to people who need it the most, said Michele Andrasik of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
New Beginnings was chosen as a site following discussions last November between staff at AARTH, a Renton-based social justice ministry, and Fred Hutch on ways to make the vaccine accessible to people of color. Fred Hutch and AARTH had previously partnered to inform communities about research on HIV treatment. Thomas, also an AARTH board member and a nurse practitioner, recommended that her church host the clinic beginning in February.
At the church’s vaccine clinic, each of the partners provides volunteers, while Fred Hutch supplies the vaccine and some staff; AARTH handles the administrative side by managing contracts, offering referrals to free transportation services, and running a registration portal for vaccination appointments and volunteers. AARTH staff hand visitors small tote bags filled with literature from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Public Health. New Beginnings provides the space, as well as volunteers from the church.
Given the AARTH’s education and outreach around HIV, another epidemic that disproportionately impacts the Black population, the organization was well-equipped to address the needs of the community during the vaccine rollout, said co-founder the Rev. Mary Diggs-Hobson. Launched nearly two decades ago, AARTH staff also trains health care providers and helps institutions that serve Black clients and people of color with improving their organization’s structure and management.
Their work within the local Black community prepared AARTH for potential barriers to vaccine access, such as a lack of technology and internet for older adults. So, staff created a phone service option on the online vaccine registration portal so that all scheduling could be done in one call. Grant funding allowed them to provide laptops and tablets to older adults, as well as digital education.
While the Kent church is the only standing clinic AARTH has partnered with, the organization also has organized pop-up clinics in collaboration with Seattle’s Central Area Senior Center, First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African American Health Board, Harborview Medical Center and Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic.
Building vaccine confidence
Trust is at the heart of creating vaccine confidence within communities, said Andrasik of Fred Hutch. Because the church and AARTH have longstanding reputations of trustworthiness within the Black and people of color communities, Andrasik said “people know that it’s an event that is going to be welcoming and affirming, and they know that there’s then a certain amount of trust that they can put into the vaccine.”
That was the case for Arlington resident Ruben Erazo, who received his second dose at the church last week per the suggestion of a friend who had been vaccinated there. New Beginnings was the only place Erazo searched for an appointment.
“It was easy; it’s comfortable,” Erazo said moments after receiving his second dose.
He gave his registration and demographic form to a group of volunteers referred to as “the data queens” by Thomas, one of the clinic’s organizers. As they input patients’ information into the state’s Immunization Information System, the “data queens” swayed in their seats to Kool & The Gang’s song “Get Down on It” that softly played from a computer speaker.
South King County residents are excited to be vaccinated at a familiar place, data entry volunteer Jacque Lacy said. “They have a genuine, collective sigh of relief,” Lacy said. “They tell you how happy they are that they’ve been able to come to a church and get additional hope.”
While New Beginnings’ congregation is predominantly Black, anyone in the community, regardless of ethnicity, may sign up for an appointment. Outreach happens through word-of-mouth, flyers, and information on the church’s and AARTH’s website.
The clinic’s effort to close the racial disparity gap in vaccine access has drawn the ire of people who accuse it of discriminating against white people, the Rev. Leslie D. Braxton of New Beginnings said. Due to online threats, he said the church has added security. “There has been no exclusiveness, which some have alleged,” Braxton said. Instead, Braxton considers the effort a “balancing of the scale” because the initial vaccine rollout left Black people behind. He believes that vaccine hesitancy also contributed to lower vaccination rates among the Black community.
Mistrust of medical professionals stems from historical experiments, and modern-day institutional racism within the health care system, said Diggs-Hobson from AARTH. The Tuskegee syphilis study conducted by the national Public Health Service — a 40-year experiment where hundreds of Black men with syphilis were not informed of the study’s purpose and denied treatment so researchers could continue studying the disease — has helped lead to a lingering distrust of public health officials.
To counteract vaccine hesitancy, volunteers at the clinic answer questions and point participants to resources to “ensure that communities who are most impacted have the resources that they need to make informed decisions for themselves and their families,” said Andrasik from Fred Hutch. The cancer research center has received emails from people who appreciated getting vaccinated by people who looked like them, and having their questions answered in a nonjudgmental way, she added.
At New Beginnings, church member Dr. Della Harrison — a doctor of eastern medicine in Seattle — observes patients for symptoms after vaccination. When she encounters visitors concerned about how quickly the vaccine was created, Harrison allays their concerns by explaining its development, and reassuring them that the medical industry has come a long way since the Tuskegee study.
“There is a need in our community for this vaccination site,” Harrison said. Many of the visitors said they were grateful it was in their neighborhood.
Volunteer vaccinator, Dr. Margaret Towolawi — a family physician and a church member — was happy to return to New Beginnings Christian Fellowship for the first time in over a year. As a Black physician, it was important for her to act as a representative to the community.
“Although it’s not a Sunday, it feels really good to feel the presence and the energy in the building, because that never goes away,” Towolawi said.