A strategic plan to get COVID-19 vaccines into the arms of Black people and other minorities in both Cincinnati and Hamilton County is underway. And it's beginning to yield results, in part by delivering vaccines at familiar settings – churches and the city's health clinics.
The lack of equal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to Black populations became obvious early in vaccination distribution around the United States and locally. Fewer Black people were being vaccinated than their proportion of the population from the start. The issue prompted discussions among area health leaders who have been meeting since April 2020 in an Equitable Strategies group of more than 20 community partners in Hamilton County.
“Since the vaccines started rolling out there has been a concern around an environment of scarcity that people with means tend to get access," said Kate Schroder, regional vaccine coordinator at the Health Collaborative, the trade group for the Cincinnati region's health systems. "We are ensuring that we’re being proactive in equitable access."
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The partnership includes county and city public health leaders, the Health Collaborative, which represents major medical systems in the area, and some elected officials. The partners want to reduce vaccination barriers for Black residents, aligning resources and increasing trust among underserved people.
To figure out where the greatest need for vaccines was, the group asked Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to apply mapping to identify the most vulnerable communities – where people who live below the poverty line and people who are in minority groups live.
Then, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus sent a letter to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Feb. 10 to ask for support of the health departments' strategic plan by providing extra vaccines. "We are respectfully requesting an additional 2,000 doses weekly to specifically address the drastic inequality," the letter states. Later, on March 3, Cram;eu sent another letter, asking DeWine to eliminate age groups as the priority for who gets the vaccine when, saying that unfairly excludes people of color, who are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 at younger ages.
The Ohio Department of Health responded to the first letter, sending 2,000 additional doses to the region to support equity efforts. Since then, an additional 2,000 to 2,500 additional doses have been sent.
The combination of additional vaccines and the detailed distribution plan is showing results, Schroder said.
In Hamilton County, 12.67% of Black residents are among those vaccinated in Hamilton County as of Monday. The Ohio Department of Health noted in its weekly meeting call to local health departments Wednesday that the county's rate of reaching the Black population was second-highest in the state among the 10 top-performing counties.
The rate is up from 11% of Black residents among all who were vaccinated as of Feb. 9, the day before the equity plan was finalized.
Cincinnati Health Department records also show an increase in Black residents vaccinated. On Feb. 9, before the equity plan rolled out, 22% of all the residents who were vaccinated were Black. Latest percentages show 40% of those who received vaccinations were Black.
Among the keys to getting the job done is to reach people who typically get healthcare from the Cincinnati Health Department’s federally qualified health clinics, said assistant city health commissioner Dominic Hopson.
To do that, the city opened up the six clinics as vaccine providers. They're the same sites that give medical care and wellness checks to about 40,000 people in Cincinnati or nearly 1 in 8 city residents. This means the clinics have their electronic records – a way to reach patients. Roughly 60% of the clinic patients are Black people and another 14% are Latino.
The clinics "are uniquely positioned across the city in underserved neighborhoods,” Hopson said of the clinics, where are located in Avondale, Lower Price Hill, Madisonville, Millvale, Northside and Over-the-Rhine. “We are proactively reaching out."
In addition to the city clinics, other clinics are getting a share of the new vaccines in the suburban areas. Among them are a Lincoln Heights and a Mount Healthy clinic. MAR
The plan includes several other strategies to help pull in people who otherwise might not get vaccinated, too.
“We’ve engaged community partners and grassroots organizations in identifying those eligible but haven’t been signed up yet," Schroder said.
By looping in community partners, including the Urban League and the local faith-based nonprofit First Ladies for Health, the plan provides information and vaccination clinics through trusted community members, the officials said.
The initial First Ladies for Health-sponsored vaccine clinic, at New Prospect Church in Roselawn on Feb. 10, took place before the strategic plan was fully underway. But since then, the organization's efforts have been a part of the larger plan.
In addition, Schroder said, some Cincinnati churches are helping identify members who haven't been vaccinated, so that United Way – another partner – can contact them and arrange vaccination appointments. The United Way is involved, getting appointments set for specific populations, including people who do not have access to the internet.
The health systems' role includes reserving 20% of their scheduling of vaccines on behalf of the underserved populations, the plan shows.
The progress is not perfect, but Schroder said she expects that, as word gets out and more people are drawn in through outreach, vaccine distribution will reflect the communities' Black and other minority populations.
“It takes an all-hands-on-deck, deliberate effort to make progress,” Schroder said. “We still have a way to go.”