'You have to start somewhere:' Chatham works to address vaccine inequity

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As vaccine distribution efforts accelerate across the state and around the world, minority populations remain woefully underrepresented among the inoculated population.

In North Carolina, recent data suggest “significant racial and ethnic disparities in urban, suburban and rural counties, and from the coast to the mountains,” according to an analysis by The Charlotte Observer.

In 77 of N.C’s 100 counties, Black residents were underrepresented, the Observer found. Hispanic residents were underrepresented in 93.

It’s not a novel issue, though. Since vaccine dispensation began, concerns have proliferated that minority groups — statistically the most impacted by COVID-19 — would lag behind the general population in getting the vaccine.

In a press conference earlier this month, Gov. Roy Cooper said vaccine inequities are decreasing, “but there is more work to be done.”

About 22% of the state’s population is Black, but only 13% of vaccine recipients have been Black through most of the distribution effort. In the week preceding Cooper’s press conference, that figure improved to 18%.

Often, reports have attributed the disparity to hesitancy among minority communities to volunteer for vaccination. Black Americans especially don’t necessarily have limited access to the vaccine, some conclude, they just don’t want to take it.

But at least one Chatham resident strongly disagrees.

“I’ve heard the conversation so often that Black people are refusing to get the shot, that they just refuse to get the vaccine,” said Delphine Womack, a longtime Goldston resident. “... Well, I think that may be an issue in other areas where you’re saying the minorities aren’t taking it or won’t take it. But here it goes back I think to the initial problem of not being able to reach them. When you speak of minorities there is still a large number that the digital divide has caused problems for.”

Womack is intimately familiar with the challenges that minority groups — and especially their older members — face in navigating limited accessibility to government resources. For almost 35 years she worked with the Social Security Administration in public relations, public affairs and management.

“I’ve always worked with the elderly,” she said, “and I’ve always worked with the disadvantaged.”

So, when she heard that Chatham’s Black residents might be underrepresented among the county’s distribution, she took matters into her own hands.

“I called the health department and they were so very helpful,” Womack said. “And once I started talking to one lady, she got me to another one who got me to another and so on.”

Soon, Womack had organized the rough details of a vaccine drive to be hosted by her church, Roberts Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Goldston.

The timing was perfect. Recognizing the state’s vaccine inequities, the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services recently began allocating COVID-19 vaccine doses to providers and counties to be used among “historically marginalized populations and areas with less access to healthcare,” according to a press release from the Chatham County Public Health Dept.

“She was already registered for her shot to get the vaccine, but realized that there wasn’t anything on the western side of the county,” Rep. Robert Reives II (Dist. 54-D) said about Womack — who happens to be his mother-in-law. “Within a week, she’d gotten in touch with the health department, and in three days she’d done a registration drive.”

With her husband, James, and partners from the CCPHD, Womack fielded hundreds of calls from interested local residents from eligible groups. Other church members contributed their services, as well, along with the Chatham County Emergency Management, the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office and the Goldston Fire Dept.

“I think it is great when the church can serve an integral role in the community, that we may come alongside people to provide the services and the assistance that they need,” said Rev. Joshua T. Jones, Senior Pastor of Roberts Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, in the CCPHD press release. “In this case, we’re talking about the COVID-19 vaccine. I think we should send a message — not only to our seniors, but to everyone — that this is something we all need to do. It helps our immune system to fight COVID-19. This is a great thing that we want to continue until everyone gets the vaccine. I thank God for the opportunity, and I look forward to our continued partnership. I want to give a special thank you to all of our church members who volunteered, including James and Delphine Womack who worked on getting everyone registered.”

In total, 210 vaccines were administered at the event on Feb. 5. To Womack, it was a resounding success, but only the first event in what she hopes will become a trend.

“I guess you have to start somewhere,” she said. “But I think I would advise anyone that the health department is so helpful, they were so helpful to us. And a couple of times, I mean, I called them and I was almost apologizing for this or that, and the response would be, ‘Continue what you’re doing, it’s OK.’ And we did ... I would encourage anyone thinking about doing this sort of thing that the health department wants to hear.”

Future plans are tentative while vaccine allocation remains scant, CCPHD representatives say, but the department is working hard to meet demand. More than 11,000 names are listed in the county’s contact database, but progress is steady.

“We know there continue to be many more who are eligible and eager to get the vaccine than there are doses available,” said CCPHD Director Mike Zelek. “When we schedule appointments, we are sorry that not all are able to get through and that slots are limited. We know that this is frustrating, and share the hopes of the Chatham community that vaccine supplies will increase in the future.”

Vaccine resources

To learn more about how Chatham County is distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, visit chathamnc.org/coronavirusvaccine. The Chatham County Public Health Department can be found online at chathamnc.org/publichealth and facebook.com/chathamhealth.

Other local vaccine providers include UNC Health which is offering the COVID-19 vaccination at its site behind Chatham Hospital in Siler City (Medical Office Building) and at nearby options such as Chapel Hill. Interested individuals should visit www.unchealthcare.org/schedule or call (984) 215-5485 to schedule an appointment when available.

Duke Health, based in Durham, is also scheduling vaccinations when available. To learn more, visit https://www.dukehealth.org/covid-19-update/covid-19-vaccine-update or call (919) 385-0429.

For a full list of options in North Carolina, visit https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/findyourspot.

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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