GraceMed Vaccination Site

Building a bridge over troubled borders

The stories you hear are arguably more novel than the coronavirus itself. One holds that the COVID-19 vaccine contains a microchip the government will use to track you and even control your behavior. Others have claimed that it will alter your DNA or your immune system or that it will render women infertile.

Of course, none of those tall tales have any resemblance to truth. The amazing reality is that scientists and medical researchers have come together across the globe to develop several vaccines that have unprecedented effectiveness in record-breaking time. But even the speed of the process has been used as evidence against the vaccine, the claim being that it was rushed to market before its safety was established. Another fable that has been roundly debunked.

A race not everyone is running

At this writing, about forty percent of the nation has been completely immunized against this life-threatening virus. As impressive as the initial progress has been, however, there is growing concern that we are headed toward a ceiling on the number of shots in arms that will fall short of the elusive “herd immunity” level needed to ultimately defeat the virus.Julie Elder, D.O. | Chief Medical Officer

“There is a sense in which this battle against the coronavirus is also a race,” said Dr. Julie Elder, GraceMed Chief Medical Officer. “The more time we give it to travel around the world, the more opportunity it has to build it’s own immunity to the ways in which we fight it.  You hear about all these variant strains, and so far, our vaccines have held up against them.  But the longer we delay herd immunity, the greater the chance that strains will develop that can greatly reduce or even eliminate the effectiveness of the vaccines.”

There are essentially two camps of vaccine resistors out there. Some people see a political dimension to the vaccine program.  Their doubts are not just about the vaccine but even the need for it, believing that the reaction to this virus is overblown. Some in this group have even proposed the best way to get herd immunity is just to let the number of infections rise until there are enough people whose immune systems have developed antibodies. The horrific loss of life required to see this process through makes it a morally bankrupt idea from the start.

The second group consists of minorities, many of whom have had life experiences that have made them naturally distrustful of government interventions in their health. Some of those experiences have been passed on to them from earlier generations who lived through now notorious research programs like the Tuskegee Study in which hundreds of black participants were led to believe they were being treated for syphilis, but were not. The study, which actually intended to look at the long term effects of the disease, left a legacy of death and disability that has played out in the lives of these African American men all the way into the new millennium.  Among Latino households, there is a fear that the record-keeping surrounding vaccination might put family members at risk because of their immigration status.

Leading by example, not government

Venus Lee, CEO

“Right or wrong, the government is probably not going to win a lot of popularity contests right now,” said Venus Lee, GraceMed CEO. “That’s true all across our nation, but certainly no less so among minorities who have long struggled for their place in society. Too often it’s been the government in one form or another that has been their adversary rather than advocate. Now we’re asking them to trust the government to give them a safe vaccination.”

As an African American, Venus found herself in a position to make a personal appeal — and to lead by example. “I made sure I was the first to get the shot here at GraceMed, and then act as an ambassador to our underserved, ethnic communities to validate that you can trust this vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.”

But viruses don’t have beliefs or suspicions. They just have a voracious capacity for attacking cells wherever they can find them.  And they can find them much more readily in minority communities.

Essentially at risk

“Many of those workers we’ve been designating as ‘essential’ are people of color,” Dr. Elder noted. “They can’t withdraw into the safety of their homes as much as the ‘non-essential’ workers can.  Many utilize public transportation that takes them to an apartment where the social distancing that we recommend is much harder to achieve. Add to that the co-morbid conditions like heart disease and diabetes that unfortunately are too common among African Americans in particular, and you can begin to see why the CDC felt it was important to find ways to break down minority resistance as quickly as possible.”

The solution that the CDC came up with was to tap into the existing relationships between community health centers and minority neighborhoods across the nation. Working through HRSA, they identified 250 community health centers to be the flagships of their initiative to get shots in arms of these resistant populations. GraceMed was honored to be among them.

“We took it as a vote of confidence because they were looking for the most effective ways to reach those populations and get shots in arms fast,” Venus said. “In this part of the country, GraceMed is well-established with a long-standing connection to the minorities the CDC wanted to reach.”

Just as we had done before with COVID testing, we scrambled now to create a space for vaccinations.  This time it was the atrium in our Administrative Center. Our expansive lobby at our Capitol Family Clinic in Topeka provided space for vaccinations there.  Then we assembled the team we needed to put shots in arms.  “I’m really very proud of our staff for their flexibility to respond to this crisis,” Dr. Elder noted. “It’s not just the giving of the shots, but the way they have welcomed the community and put them at ease about getting vaccinated.”

Dr. Elder herself has become a kind of epidemiologist-in-residence, not only overseeing the operation, but ensuring that the record-keeping and CDC reporting that is required is accurately managed as well. “It’s critical that we know where we are in the pursuit of herd immunity, and that the patients have a record of their vaccination.  Then, of course, we are using the two-shot Moderna vaccine, so patients have to know when to come back.”

Early on, GraceMed formed a partnership with HealthCore, another community health center located near WSU to share resources at pop-up events. “We would go to organizations like the Boys and Girls Club as well as to various large employers,” Venus explained. “It’s just another way of creating more access to shots, and taking away another excuse not to get vaccinated.”

Getting the word out. And the word is trust.

We also knew early on that we would need to push the word out that vaccines were available, safe and effective. That’s why GraceMed, HealthCore and Sedgwick County are all engaged in a public information initiative, producing a multimedia blitz of advertising to reassure, motivated and inform reluctant citizens.

“What we’re finding is that most of us will listen to people we already have a relationship of trust with,” Venus said. “That’s really the logic behind giving vaccines to community health centers in the first place.  We are the providers that minority and underserved households have been trusting for so many years. We hope that same trust will extend to getting this vaccine, too.”

This post originated in our State of Grace quarterly news magazine. If you would like to receive the magazine, please visit this link and give us your information. Thanks!