“IT’S NOT HESITANCY, IT’S ACCESS” UMOJA HEALTH VOLUNTEERS TARGET VACCINE ACCESS

by | May 4, 2021 | COVID-19

Kim Rhoads on creating access to vaccines

By SUNITA SOHRABJI/EMS Contributing Editor

SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — As rap music joined the whoosh of nearby BART trains on a recent Saturday morning, Umoja Health Founder Dr. Kim Rhoads and her army of volunteer health care workers delivered shots of COVID-19 vaccines to more than 300 people at a pop-up vaccination clinic.

Brian Carmichael, who came to the pop-up with his sister and his baby, said he learned about it by word of mouth, after initially going to get tested.

Carmichael, who works in talent acquisition, described himself as one of the “lucky ones” who had no loss of livelihood or income due to the pandemic. He has kept his family safe simply by staying at home, or socially distancing at parks and wearing masks. Now he’s got the vaccine.

Rhoads, an epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco, and her team have thus far organized 20 pop-up clinics in underserved areas of Oakland and San Francisco. The team has administered more than 3,000 COVID-19 tests and 1,500 doses of the one-shot J&J vaccine or the two-dose Moderna regimen. The clinics are walk or drive-in, requiring no preregistration, and aim to serve low-income Black people who may not have the requisite tools or digital literacy to make an online vaccine appointment.

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The pop-up clinics initially started out as testing sites: In East Oakland, there were high rates of COVID-19 infections, but low numbers of tests. “We thought that it might be related to access to testing and how testing was delivered. So that’s how we started doing the pop-ups,” said Rhoads, who was studying cancer in underserved communities but pivoted to COVID-19 as the pandemic began.

“Because we were able to reach such a high proportion of African American people who had never been engaged before, Alameda County decided to give us an allocation of vaccine,” she said.

The epidemiologist said she is challenging “the myth of Black vaccine hesitancy,” pointing to the numbers of people Umoja Health has vaccinated. “Vaccine hesitancy is so racialized. We have large communities of white people in the Bay Area who absolutely are against vaccinations, but we never use the term hesitancy with them.”

“And then when we find out that fewer black people have gotten vaccinated, we blame them for that rather than blaming our delivery system,” said Rhoads.

“Our delivery systems need to change if we’re really going to get to equity,” she said.

The distribution of confirmed COVID-19 cases reveals significant disparities within California’s overall racial and ethnic demographics. Recognizing this, California focused on equitable distribution of the vaccine, especially for the hardest-hit populations. California has administered more than 28 million vaccine doses, including almost 6 million to those who live in the state’s hardest-hit communities.

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The epidemiologist also challenged the myth of “underlying conditions” as an answer to why so many people of color have become severely sick or died from COVID-19, noting that equitable care closes the mortality gap.

“When the California office of Statewide Health Planning and Development releases the hospitalization data for 2020, I’ll be asking, ‘what happened to people when they showed up in the emergency department? Did they get oxygen immediately? Did they get admitted to the ICU where they were triaged urgently or were they left to linger in the emergency department? Were they discharged repeatedly after coming back but couldn’t get admitted?’ These are questions that give us a systems level approach to understanding disparities,” said Rhoads.

Kevin Epps, a volunteer with Umoja Health, who is widely known for his documentary, “Straight Outta Hunter’s Point,” said that hesitancy exists for Black people and people of color because of historic injustices. Epps said he himself was skeptical until he spoke to Rhoads: now he and his family are all vaccinated.

“It’s important for people to realize that for every person who gets vaccinated, we get one step closer to community immunity, which is the pathway out of this pandemic,” said Rhoads.

Registering on MyTurn.ca.gov, reaching out to your primary care physician or health plan, or contacting a local clinic or pharmacy are a few of the several ways to schedule an appointment to be vaccinated. Those without internet or email access can call the COVID-19 Hotline at 1-833-422-4255, translators are available in 250+ languages.

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