A flurry of languages flowed through the South End’s Othello Station Pharmacy on a recent Wednesday as customers filled prescriptions and rolled up their shirt sleeves to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
The pharmacy near the corner of 43rd Avenue South and South Othello Street was seemingly ordinary, with its rows of over-the-counter medication and first-aid supplies. But a display of hand-crafted items — camel milk soap, painted greeting cards and a flyer featuring a picture of Mecca — hinted at the pharmacy’s cultural relevance for its diverse local community.
Pharmacists Dr. Ahmed Ali and Dr. Abdirahman Tache established what may be the state’s only Black-owned pharmacy in 2018 as an accessible shop that addresses health disparities for a clientele including African immigrants, and Black and Asian Americans. The staff’s knowledge of multiple languages and cultural sensitivities helps cater to the diverse neighborhood’s needs, Ali said.
As COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact communities of color in King County, patients and volunteers said the pharmacy and its pop-up clinics at churches, mosques and community centers fill a gap in vaccinations for people who need them the most. While Black residents compose 6.4% of the county population, for example, they make up 11.6% of COVID-19 cases, according to recent Public Health – Seattle & King County statistics.
The pharmacy’s efforts will play an even more vital role in vaccinating marginalized communities now that everyone 16 years and older is eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, Public Health officials said.
“They’ve developed a lot of trust from within the community, which is why they play a huge role,” said Ali Omar, faith-based organization lead at the health department.
In Somali, Dr. Ahmed Ali, dressed in a white lab coat over a plaid shirt and black tie, explained the COVID-19 vaccine form to Renton resident Abdihalim Mahamud on that recent Wednesday. Mahamud was led to a small office where nurse Iman Yunis spoke to him in his native language and English, uttering an “it’s OK” before she administered the shot.
As a U.S. Postal Service clerk, 55-year-old Mahamud wanted to protect his elderly mother whom he cares for in their multigenerational home. He was unable to navigate Phase Finder — the state’s former online vaccine eligibility tool — without his daughter’s help. So staff at Abu-Bakr Islamic Center of Washington recommended that he call Ali. He scheduled an appointment at the pharmacy three days later.
“That’s easy for me,” Mahamud said, flashing a wide smile.
The process was even faster for Maxamud Jimcale, a 72-year-old SeaTac resident who booked the appointment over the phone earlier that morning. “I called just this pharmacy, because we have [a] similar language; I prefer them,” he said.
Ali sees a lack of access to the internet and computers, as well as the early difficulty of using the state’s vaccine eligibility tool, as a hindrance to vaccine access, which he addresses by encouraging patients to call the clinic for availability and bookings. Additionally, language and cultural barriers — early on providers were vaccinating those in multigenerational homes, but eligibility wasn’t easily understood — led to confusion.
The pharmacy’s location in South Seattle also is significant, since the fewest residents 75 and older (by percentage) with at least one dose are concentrated in the West Seattle, South Seattle, Delridge and Highline areas. Clientele at the pharmacy are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with communities of color more likely to have higher levels of hospitalization and death rates than white residents.
Black and Latino residents in King County age 16 years old and older are the least likely to be vaccinated. According to Public Health stats from Monday, 18.3% of Hispanic and 23.1% of Black people are fully vaccinated. The Native American and Alaska Native population have been vaccinated at the highest rate at 38.6%, followed by Asian people at 31.8%. The white population has been vaccinated at 31.2%, while 30.6% of the Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander residents have been fully vaccinated.
Pharmacy staff were well prepared to vaccinate the most vulnerable people after nearly three years of meeting the needs of their primarily low-income clients. Deliveries are made to customers unable to pick up their medication, and all forms of insurance are accepted regardless of the reimbursement level. In fact, 80% of the pharmacy’s customers are on Medicaid. The majority of the approximately 150 customers served per day get home deliveries.
Those who come in person travel from as far away as Kent, SeaTac and Tukwila to have their prescriptions explained by staff collectively fluent in seven languages —including Swahili, Somali, Arabic, Oroma, Tagalog, Tigrinya and English.
“The disparities that we’re facing, it’s primarily systemic driven, but at the same time its lack of ownership from our communities as well,” Ali said.
The pharmacy’s travel clinic, which offers vaccinations suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prior to international travel, helps the pharmacy make up losses from insurance reimbursements. In 2019, 180 people received meningitis vaccinations through the pharmacy prior to hajj, an annual five-day pilgrimage that about 3 million Muslims take each year to Mecca.
A Somali refugee who moved to the neighborhood in 1997, Ali wanted to give back to his community as a health professional. But educators tried to discourage him from pursuing pharmacy by telling him, “This is not for you, or it’s not for your kind,” Ali said. When he graduated from the Washington State University’s pharmacy program in 2008, he vowed to create a space for young people of color to seek inspiration.
“He’s opening the door for many other students who are pursuing careers in health care,” said Yunis, a registered nurse at the pharmacy and a Seattle University Doctor of Nursing Practice student. Some youth who interact with Ali and Tache leave the pharmacy with aspirations to enter the health care field, and a few even went on to intern with the pharmacy.
One student, Hannan Saeed, is now a senior at University of Washington Tacoma’s biomedical science program and will pursue pharmacy school next fall. She had always wanted to enter the field, and felt that her dreams were answered when the pharmacy moved into a building across the street from her family’s East African restaurant.
During her internship last summer, the pharmacy’s welcoming environment fueled Saeed’s passion in the field. Staff encouraged her, gave her advice on pharmacy programs, and showed her how to develop a relationship with customers. Now Saeed continues to volunteer at the pharmacy when she visits her parents’ restaurant twice a week.
“They’re still shaping me into the pharmacist that I would want to be,” Saeed said.
The pharmacy’s role in vaccinations
Early on in the pandemic, Ali partnered with nonprofit Somali Health Board to create short videos educating the community on COVID-19. To counteract vaccine hesitancy, he documented his own vaccination process in videos that were uploaded to Facebook and the Somali Health Board website, explaining to his patients that it was safe.
When the vaccine became available, he signed the pharmacy up to receive doses from the state Department of Health. Along with offering the Moderna vaccine at the pharmacy, beginning in early February he partnered with community-based organizations, Abu-Bakr Islamic Center, churches and Public Health to host pop-up clinics. As of April 10, staff at the pharmacy had vaccinated 3,200 people, mainly at the pop-up clinics.
Ali’s “like the right hand to the lord for the vaccine. And not only in the East African community, but in the Black community also,” said Jim Buchanan, a Seattle entrepreneur who struggled to secure a vaccine appointment for his 82-year-old mother. The process initiated him into a network of vaccine chasers, people who spend their spare time tracking down vaccine availability. Word spread around the city that Buchanan knew how to help people get the vaccine, and soon he was accepting calls from dozens of people every day. It exposed the myth that Black people do not want to be vaccinated, he said.
“We are begging for it,” Buchanan said.
Between February and March, Buchanan guided about 500 people through the process of getting a vaccination, mainly through the Department of Health’s website, he said. The process became easier when someone in his newfound network connected him to Ali. In the first week after meeting him, Buchanan said that he directed about 60 people to Ali for a vaccine. If Ali didn’t have appointments available, he would inform Buchanan of other clinics with openings. When Buchanan’s aunt, who has multiple sclerosis, couldn’t get to a vaccine appointment, Ali persuaded Seattle Children’s Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic staff to vaccinate her at her home, Buchanan said.
African Americans “are dying rapidly,” Buchanan said. “But there’s no lane provided for African Americans to get it.”
When the Van Asselt Community Center held a vaccination pop-up clinic for the public in mid-February, New Holly resident and president of the center’s advisory council, Keats Landis, called on Ali to administer the vaccine. She did outreach throughout the neighborhood by handing out flyers door to door with two other volunteers, while East African community organizations — the Somali Health Board and the Somali Family Safety Task Force — informed their members and provided translators. That day, the community center was filled with a convivial spirit as hot tea was served, along with grab bags of face masks, toothbrushes and hand sanitizer for the diverse group of 100 residents who were vaccinated.
“You really need boots on the ground to understand how to get to people here in South Seattle,” Landis said. She has continued to volunteer with Ali to vaccinate people at pop-up clinics throughout South King County.
Along with being trusted by the diverse population, vaccine appointments are easily accessible at the pharmacy and pop-up clinics hosted by pharmacy staff.
They are “really filling a lot of the void” left by Public Health and other health maintenance organizations, Omar, from the health department, said.
Throughout March and April, Omar worked with the pharmacy to vaccinate people at Holy Temple Evangelistic Center in Skyway, where 70% of the patients were Black, as well as the Immaculate Conception Church in the Central District neighborhood.
As Public Health’s faith-based organization lead administrator, Omar facilitates meetings with faith leaders to address questions on COVID-19, safety guidelines, and vaccines. The Othello Station Pharmacy’s pop-up clinics are culturally sensitive to Muslim patients, because the pharmacy’s Muslim staff understand that women wearing the hijab need to be vaccinated separately from men in respect of cultural norms.
“The thing I have the utmost respect for Ahmed and his team is they really understand their work and their role,” Omar said.