A Truman Medical Center nurse fills a syringe with a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. Photo by Zachary Linhares/The Beacon

Hosting COVID-19 vaccine events in Black churches. Playing video interviews with physicians at barber shops. Canvassing neighborhoods to fill vaccination appointments.

These are just some of the ideas that Kansas City organizations are asking for or planning on to foster Black communities’ trust in COVID-19 vaccines. Organizers say it’s necessary to address the disparity in vaccination rates.

So far, while Black people make up 11% of Missouri’s population, they only make up 7% of the population vaccinated

That’s distressing when data shows Missouri’s Black and white populations have suffered the same rate of COVID-19 deaths — 167 per 100,000 people, according to APM Research Lab — even though the state’s last census shows the state’s population is 83% white.

In Kansas City, where Black communities are also disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, it doesn’t help that vaccination rates by race are not publicly available.

“When you recognize there are disparities in one community, it should not take this disparity data to bring it to your awareness that we need this call to action,” said Danise Hartsfield, executive director of Communities Creating Opportunity, a nonprofit that organizes Kansas City communities for racial justice and social change.

“I’m disheartened that we continue to be in this particular space that Black and brown communities are an afterthought.”

Many barriers to getting COVID-19 vaccine information

Plans like Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas’ COVID-19 vaccine task force, which launched in February, should have been in place since the beginning of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, not tacked on later, Hartsfield said. Lucas did not respond to requests for comment about the timing of the task force.

“The community could best tell you where vaccine sites should be located,” Hartsfield said. “Allow us some input in that.”

Valerie Chow, a member of the Kansas City vaccine task force and a volunteer vaccinator for Truman Medical Centers, agrees that having trusted liaisons would help.

“It’s a matter of meeting people where they are,” she said.

She’s seen some issues that could’ve been better handled. For instance, at the Arrowhead Stadium mass vaccination event in mid-March, buses were supposed to arrive filled with people from churches in urban areas of the city. 

But not many people got on the buses, Chow said.

A five-day vaccination event at the start of April has about 1,100 vaccine appointments at YMCA of Greater Kansas City sites and Walmart pharmacies, but only about 200 slots were reserved as of March 31, Chow said.

Vaccine clinics at hospitals don’t reflect the local demographics, Chow said. But when they happen at places like Friendship Baptist Church or Morningstar Baptist Church, and a clergy member reaches out to the community, people with the same demographics as the neighborhood show up for appointments.

Some of these events also require calling an 800 number or signing up to be on a list, which can cause additional hesitancy, Chow said.

Volunteers and nurses from Truman Medical Center wait to adminster the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine to Jackson County residents during a mass vaccination event at Arrowhead Stadium on March 20, 2021. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

Transportation to vaccination clinics and time slot availability are also barriers, Hartsfield said. She said not many vaccine sites have appointments during off-work hours, forcing people to choose their jobs over taking time off to get the vaccine.

And for people in low-income communities without access to technology, signing up for clinics is a difficult process, Hartsfield said.

But calls to host vaccine sites that better serve the Black community are met with barriers.

Cultural competency from decision-makers is a problem, Chow said.

“Bureaucracy doesn’t always listen to people who are really on the front lines and have found a way to do it successfully,” Chow said. “They still want to do it their way.”

How nonprofits are making vaccine information more accessible

In February, Communities Creating Opportunity created a petition calling on hospitals to tailor their approach to COVID-19 vaccine distribution to better serve those living in Kansas City’s low-income, high-risk ZIP codes.

“I believe that it is important to not let present and historical biases shape how the vaccine is disseminated into communities,” Hartsfield said. “The vaccine should be going into communities that are most impacted.”

CCO’s plan called for hospitals to send more mobile units to Kansas City’s ZIP codes with the highest mortality rates and for hospitals to be transparent about pop-up vaccine sites and notify people how, where and when they can get the vaccine.

CCO is currently canvassing neighborhoods in Kansas City ZIP codes with high COVID-19 mortality rates to help sign people up to get vaccinated at Morning Star Baptist Church, using community leaders to let people know that appointments are available.

The Black Health Care Coalition has been spreading information about COVID-19 vaccines at “health literacy stations,” which are places frequented by Black community members, said Melissa Robinson, president of the BHHC, which aims to end health disparities. Robinson also represents Kansas City’s 3rd District on the city council, an area that covers east of Troost Avenue past Arrowhead Stadium.

The group has held virtual events on social media to explain the science behind the COVID-19 vaccine and plans to send informational videos to libraries and churches.

Soon people might be able to go to their local barber shop or beauty salon and watch video interviews with local physicians talking about the science behind the COVID-19 vaccine, or see information on a nearby vaccination event. 

“The biggest challenge that we’re having right now is there are a lot of options for the vaccine, and not everyone knows where to go, what to do,” Robinson said.

Organizations have stepped up to help people make appointments, but it isn’t streamlined, she explained. And when people call services like the city’s 311 helpline, someone takes down the caller’s info and gets back to them later rather than addressing their need at that time.

She’d like to see a central hub that Kansas City’s Black or Latinx communities can call or go in person to get information about the COVID-19 vaccine, staffed with people who understand the culture and language.

Hartsfield added that more information is needed about how much vaccination progress is being made in communities of color and where vaccines are being distributed in the city.

“If there was more data available about how much is going into a particular area and what is not, then we can pinpoint these are spaces where the vaccine should be allocated to,” she said.

Now the city is asking vaccine providers to record demographics data, Chow said. Currently, institutions are not putting the information down often enough for it to be reliable.

Robinson thinks vaccination sites should be set up like polling stations.

“Our vaccination sites should be set up like voting on Election Day,” she said. “They need to be smaller, so that they’re more accessible for people.”

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Brittany Callan covered health and environment at The Beacon, and was a Report for America corps member for 2020-2021. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.