A new effort is bringing the power of local Black and Latino churches to the fight against the coronavirus.
“We’ve been impacted in a major way by the pandemic, said Rev. Da’Henri Thurmond of his congregation of about 2,500 at St. Paul CME Church. “We’ve had a number of persons in our congregation who either have suffered from the virus or have ultimately died from the virus.”
With those losses in mind, Thurmond jumped aboard a collaborative effort among Black and Latino churches, St. Joseph’s Candler Health System and the Chatham County Health Department to vaccinate church members throughout Chatham County. The program rolled out in pilot form Wednesday at St. Philip Monumental AME on Jefferson Street, where in a congregation of about 300, Pastor Bernard Clarke has eulogized four members who died of COVID since March.
Among the first in line for a vaccine was Geraldine Brannen, 84, Clarke’s mother-in-law. She had requested the COVID shot from other sources, including her doctor, but the church was the first to come through.
“I wanted to have it, and I’ve been trying,” she said.
Retired nurse Brenda Sellers, 70, was baptized as a baby at St. Philip Monumental. She came in for her vaccine Wednesday to set an example.
“I think it was just good that we were able to set the pace for others and to be able to see, that this is something that is good for us,” she said.
About 130 people, all from participating churches including 11 from St. Philip were scheduled to be vaccinated there Wednesday. The program does not provide a sign up for the general public.
The need to get the vaccine to more people of color is clear.
Earlier this week the state Department of Public Health reported it had distributed at least the first dose of the COVID vaccine to about a million Georgians. Only about 16% of the recipients were Black, yet Georgia is about 33% Black.
COVID has been hitting the Black population hard. Black Georgians end up hospitalized with COVID at a disproportionate rate and are more likely to die from COVID, especially at younger ages. About half of all Georgians who were in their 40s when they died from COVID were Black.
State Rep. Carl Gilliard’s son was hospitalized with COVID. And he knows many other local families affected by the disease.
“The most dramatic thing was the numbers,” said Gilliard, a Democrat from Garden City. “When we were doing the holiday dinners, I would always say that somebody wasn’t sitting at their table.”
Gilliard, a reverend himself, was enthusiastic when St. Joseph’s/Candler CEO and President Paul P. Hinchey suggested the collaboration.
“Because every day there was a phone call of someone that we lost, a funeral, a person that’s in the hospital,” he said. “When I got the call from Paul Hinchey, it was a no- brainer. It was the answer to a prayer. And so when he called me and told me about the possibilities, I said, I’d be glad to kind of recruit and gather the faith-based community.”
The churches, about 10 so far, provide a safe and convenient environment in which to get the vaccine. Plus they’re recruiting their church members to build on the existing trust.
“It’s going into the neighborhoods, rather than having the neighborhoods come to the sites,” Hinchey said. “Because it’s underserved populations and you have to go through the small end of the funnel of trust. And in our community, it’s the churches.”
The trust is necessary because of vaccine hesitancy.
“We have in the past not had such a good turn,” Gilliard said. “But what’s happening now that it makes it even more pertinent for people to look into the vaccine is that if we do nothing, it’s not going to get better. So right now, we got to do something.”
Barriers to getting the vaccine persist, Thurmond said.
“I have actually talked with members who are scheduled, and are still hesitant for a number of different reasons,” he said. “And I’ve also talked to members who have had difficulty finding venues where they can be vaccinated. And so I think that both of those issues are prevalent in our community.”
St. Joseph’s/Candler has already had success getting the vaccine to its own workers. By polling staffers and understanding the source of their hesitancy to take the vaccine, the health system addressed their specific issues, which often focused on pregnancy and fertility issues among its young female workforce.
Using these tools, St. Joseph’s/Candler achieved 70% vaccination of its staff, putting it among the top five hospitals in the state for COVID vaccination rates.
The collaborative intends to apply a similar strategy to these church communities beginning next month. St. Joseph’s/Candler will develop a survey about the vaccine that churches will send to members. Their responses will be examined for patterns of concerns that the pastors can address with sound medical responses developed by the health system.
Vaccines will be administered free at the churches. The Chatham County Health Department is providing the doses for approximately 1,000 individuals in underserved communities who are 65 and older through locations identified by the advisory group. It also staffed the pilot clinic, though St. Joseph’s/Candler is aiming to get its own vaccine supply and provide staff for future clinics.
The collaborative would like to see its efforts replicated elsewhere.
“These are underserved populations, which are going to require non-traditional methods of getting them doses,” Hinchey said. “And frankly, it’s a microcosm of the state. And it’s a microcosm of the country. This is a new distribution model. That’s not been tried. We’re gonna do it.”
Hinchey expects that effort to continue into the summer as the vaccine becomes available to younger age groups. In fact, Hinchey and Gilliard would like to see underserved communities prioritized in the vaccine distribution phases and they have asked Gov. Brian Kemp to consider doing so.
Hinchey said he’s supporting the vaccination collaboration because it’s the right thing to do for the whole community and builds on St. Joseph’s/Candler’s existing programs like the St. Mary’s Health Center, St. Mary’s Community Center and Good Samaritan Clinic.
“We can’t get out of this situation we are in unless 70% of the population gets inoculated,” he said. “That is all populations, everybody. It’s the right thing to do. We have to do it.”
- St Paul CME, Rev. Da’Henri Thurmond, 1601 Barnard, St. Savannah
- First Jerusalem Mission Baptist Church, Rev. Damion Gordon, 4370 ACL Boulevard Savannah
- Kingdom Life Christian Fellowship, Pastor Charles Roberson, 425 West Montgomery Crossroads, Savannah
- New Generation Full Gospel Baptist Church, Bishop Norris Darden, 2020 Tennessee Avenue, Savannah
- Living Hope Community Fellowship, Pastor Joyce Hall, 5008 Augusta Road, Savannah
- St. Philip AME, Pastor Jai Haithco, 612 Maurice Brown Dr., Savannah.
- First Bryan Baptist Church, Pastor Christopher Pittman, 575 West Bryan St., Savannah
- Taylor Chapel AME Church, Pastor Jonetta Prater, 107 Darling St., Savannah
- St. Philip Monumental AME Church, Senior Pastor Bernard Clarke, 1112 Jefferson Street, Savannah
- Savannah Sanctuary of Praise Christian Assembly, Bishop Jackie Gilbert Grant, 5212 Silk Road, Savannah
- St. Joseph’s Candler Good Samaritan Clinic, Sister Pat Baber RSM, 4704 Augusta Road, Garden City
- First Hispanic Church of Savannah, Inc., Rev. Samuel Rodriquez, 1 Gamble Road, Savannah
Mary Landers is the environment and health reporter at the Savannah Morning News. Contact her at 912-655-8295. Twitter: @MaryLandersSMN