In the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition remained a lifeline for many families on Cleveland’s East Side. The social justice organization was founded in 2011 to address the impact of medical racism on African Americans and underserved communities. In March 2020, the group pivoted its services to focus on providing 70,000 meals and snacks, hand sanitizer, cleaning resources, winter coats, boots and masks to families with barriers to transportation or who were homebound.
“We had a groundswell response from the community who wanted to make sure people were getting all the things they needed to be safe,” says Yvonka M. Hall, executive director of NEOBHC.
Since January, Hall and her team of volunteers and advocates have filled tall orders, providing support, safety and research-based information on the coronavirus to the small net of families they serve. Now they seem to be extending their reach even further, taking on a much bigger task: getting Cuyahoga County’s minority populations vaccinated.
“None of our leaders here in Northeast Ohio said anything [to our community] for months,” Hall says. “So now we’re in a juggling game, thinking of what the best approach is [to vaccinate] the community and our approach should have started last year.”
Public health experts and community advocates have cited reasons why vaccination rates among Black communities and communities of color lag behind other groups in Cuyahoga County, such as lack of engagement and outreach to marginalized communities at the local and state level.
Communities of color bore the brunt of the pandemic. Nationally, Black and Latino populations contracted and died from coronavirus about two times the rate of white populations. Black residents in Cuyahoga County make up 30.5% of the population, but accounted for more than 28.7% of cases and 50.2% of hospitalizations.
Increased exposure and transmission of the virus can be attributed to many vulnerabilities prominent within the Black community, including families who live in densely populated areas and whose family members are essential workers — health care support, food services, critical infrastructure and government personnel. Families and individuals who live in multigenerational households and are dependent on crowded buses and vehicles for transportation to work have greater proximity to risk of catching the virus.
Equitable access to COVID-19 testing and the vaccine has also been a critical issue in Cuyahoga County. Faced with transportation hurdles, lack of access to broadband internet and phone service issues, prolonged public work shifts and home care obstacles for working class families, leaders across Cuyahoga County are trying to shrink the racial disparities in vaccine access by increasing their outreach.
Organizations such as Asia Services In Action have assisted Asian American and Pacific Islander refugees and immigrants in Northeast Ohio to receive the vaccine despite unique cultural and language barriers. Since the vaccine rollout, ASIA continues to host vaccine clinics twice a week at its International Community Health Center in Akron with interpreters on hand to help and assist individuals. Hispanic and Latino nonprofits and organizational leaders, such as the Young Latino Network, have worked with local news outlets and clinics to provide public service announcements and effective messaging to target Northeast Ohio Latino residents most at risk to get vaccinated.
MetroHealth and Cleveland Clinic have also partnered with East Side barber shops, churches, salons and businesses to produce pop-up and walk-in vaccination sites in Black neighborhoods to diminish accessibility problems across the county. But still, it’s done little to move the numbers.
“Everyone is pushing for people to take the vaccine and the way people are processing it is that they are trying to do an experiment on us,” Hall says. “In order to effectively engage with the African American community, we have to build trust and trust takes time.”
In order to combat the disruption of misinformation across Northeast Ohio, Black preachers, church congregations and doctors have united to address lingering skepticism of the vaccine while also helping people overcome logistical hurdles. In July 2020, the Color of Health Initiative, led by 17 African American church congregations in Greater Cleveland and the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, opened testing sites and, a few months later, mobile vaccination sites in East Side communities.
With churches and community centers being trusted staples in Black communities, Keisha Krumm, lead organizer for Color of Health Initiative and executive director of Greater Cleveland Congregation, says the challenge still persists.
“We’re now thinking of methods like door-to-door canvassing, educating people to become more civically engaged and giving them information about the vaccine, like a home delivery model for the vaccinations,” Krumm says. “It’s really about meeting people where they are and giving them the information to make decisions for themselves.”
Between March 2021 and May 2021, the pace of vaccinations in Cuyahoga County was on the upswing with daily records of doses administered. With the Ohio Mass Vaccination Clinic located at Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center, nearly 255,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been distributed over the course of 12 weeks, reported state officials. As of August, 57.29% of Cuyahoga County’s white residents have received their first round of vaccinations, whereas just 33.62% of the county’s Black residents have received their first round.
In July, Gov. DeWine introduced a funding incentive to state employees and their spouses who get the vaccine. But, it still doesn’t seem like enough. Organizations such as NEOBHC and GCC are continuing to call on city and state leaders to reach for justice by prioritizing communities hardest hit by COVID-19. These groups are seeking approaches that confront historical and present day health abuses and inequities rooted in racism within fields of medicine and validating reasons why citizens may feel hesitant to get the vaccine.
By acknowledging the past, building transparency with communities through honest communication with trusted messengers, as well as remaining accountable to build new and equitable policies, systems and power structures, the possibility of long-term impact is fruitful.
“We need to stop expecting people who have been marginalized by all of these systems to come to them and trust them immediately when it benefits the whole,” Hall says. “The system needs to come from the people. That is the pivot. For my community, you can’t talk about equity because part of equity is trust.”