Here’s the truth – there is no one-size-fits-all solution to making sure Worcester’s Black and brown communities can access COVID-19 vaccinations. But the good news is that community-based organizations working with state and local health officials and the philanthropic sector have come together to make sure the populations hit hardest by the pandemic are also able to access the vaccines.
The city of Worcester has recorded more than 23,000 cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. And as is true in so many cities and towns across Massachusetts and the country, Worcester’s Black and brown communities have been disproportionately affected from the disease – they’ve experienced higher rates of hospitalizations and death, in large part because of systemic racism.
But there is hope on the horizon – case counts are coming down as more and more people are getting vaccinated. Community stakeholders and officials are making a special effort to engage the city’s Black, Latinx, and immigrant populations, and the hard work is beginning to pay off. There is more work to be done, to be sure; vaccination rates among people of color are lower than among their white neighbors. And the vaccination rate for Worcester’s Black and brown population is lower when compared to other communities across the commonwealth. But every day brings better news, and better understanding of the right blueprint for successful outreach.
So what has worked? In fact many of Worcester’s Black and brown communities face significant barriers to access. Some are unaware of when vaccine clinics are taking place in their neighborhoods. Others are working hours or jobs that make it difficult for them to schedule time to get the shot. Others are concerned about missing work because of vaccine side effects.
Each of our organizations – and the others we’ve worked with – have effectively used multiple approaches to get the word out to dispel misinformation and eliminate barriers. To reach Worcester’s African refugee and immigrant communities, we’ve used everything from social media posts to texts to audio messages shared on WhatsApp. We’ve also offered in-person and virtual vaccine workshops at African churches and distributed fliers at African houses of worship and businesses.
In some communities, we’ve used techniques we’ve learned from civic engagement work. For instance, we’ve applied old-fashioned political campaign tactics – phone calling and door knocking – to educate residents on when and where vaccine clinics are taking place in their neighborhoods. We’ve set up tables at community food markets and grocery stores and done the same at Worcester Housing Authority developments. We’ve also provided information that member faith communities can share with their congregations.
It is important to answer questions, build trust and remove barriers that make it difficult for people to get vaccinated, especially when there are so many contradictory claims about the vaccines. Some of the people we work with are afraid of what the vaccines might do to their bodies; others are concerned they will not have access to all of the different vaccine options. One-on-one conversations are an important tool to address some of these concerns. Additionally, it is clear different populations identify different community members as trusted messengers. Grants from the Tufts Health Plan and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundations have enabled us to work with cultural brokers and find those residents who can convey the key message – “vaccines save lives and health” – most effectively.
Finally, we’ve learned an effective community response requires coordination and a sense of working together. Collaboration among city and state health officials, coordination of efforts so that organizations are sharing data and not duplicating efforts, and the intentional decision to create a diverse, multi-ethnic coalition that is working collaboratively has gone a long way to prioritizing the needs of Worcester’s Black and brown communities.
The work is not finished when it comes to making sure that Worcester’s Black and brown communities can access COVID-19 vaccines. But we have a strong foundation to build on, and we should do so. It’s what all families and individuals need and deserve.
Isabel Gonzalez-Webster is the executive director of Worcester Interfaith. Kaska Yawo is executive director and co-founder of African Community Education (ACE).
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