In Aurora, An Ethiopian Church Becomes A Trusted Vaccination Site
For months, the halls of Saint Mary’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church have stood mostly empty.
COVID-19 restrictions prevent the congregation from sharing meals. Services are mainly held online. Holidays come and go without the usual mass celebrations.
But on a recent, chilly morning, the church’s cafeteria was once again buzzing with activity. On the menu: 300 COVID-19 vaccines specifically reserved for congregants and other immigrant and refugee residents from the community.
“I’m very happy,” said Mergersa Edeye, a longtime member of the congregation, after getting his vaccine. “Many of us wouldn’t have this opportunity otherwise.”
The church partnered with Democratic state Rep. Naquetta Ricks and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to become an equity clinic — one of dozens taking place across the state. The pop-up vaccine distribution sites are designed to help quash racial disparities emerging in the rollout.
Black and African American residents, while representing roughly 4% of Colorado’s population, have only received about 2% of its vaccine doses, according to state data. Hispanic and Asian American residents have also fallen behind when compared to their population share.
White residents, on the other hand, have received a disproportionately large percentage of doses.
“I saw that and was very concerned,” said Rep. Ricks, who is also an immigrant. Ricks said she approached Saint Mary’s about becoming an equity clinic for a number of reasons. The location is central to many immigrants and refugees living in Aurora and, more importantly, they trust it.
“We’re trying to equalize or level the playing field a little bit,” Ricks said. “ This is a community that has been really devastated by COVID-19 and most of these elders and essential workers don’t know where else to get the vaccine.”
For church leaders, the decision to host the clinic was easy.
Girma Tilahun, vice chair of the church’s board, said many congregants have encountered language or transportation barriers when trying to make appointments elsewhere. Having the clinic on site eliminates excuses not to get vaccinated.
“We educate everyone that the vaccine is important for them, just like masks,” Tilahun said. “They all know that (they need to get vaccinated) if they want to come back to the church. If they don’t take the vaccine, they’ll have to stay home.”
Still, hesitancy has been an issue. A husband and wife recently came to Tilahun and said they were suspicious of the 15-minute wait period required for all patients.
Tilahun, along with a nurse in the congregation, were able to explain it was just a safety precaution. Feeling assured, the couple went ahead with getting their doses, Tilahun said.
“It’s a small percentage (of those who don’t want it),” he said. “Most of our members do.”
Nationwide, COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is decreasing. But Black and African Americans are more likely to not want a shot than people in other racial and ethnic groups. Experts say it’s due to a history of racism in medical research.
They’re also more likely to turn to a religious leader for input, according to a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. It found up to a third of Black adults who are hesitant about getting vaccinated are looking for information from their local church or another religious organization before making a decision.
Yohannes Feye, one of Saint Mary’s priests, thought getting the vaccine would be a bigger deal. But when he rolled up his sleeve during the church’s equity clinic, he was shocked.
“It’s like a regular flu vaccination,” Feye said. “I didn’t feel anything.”
Feye said the pandemic has hit his congregation hard. A lot of people have gotten sick with COVID-19. A few have died.
He wanted to get vaccinated to encourage others to do the same.
“It’s good for the community. It’s good for the country. It’s good for a lot of people’s health so we stop transmitting the virus to each other,” Feye said. ‘So I will advocate as much as I can.”
Back in the cafeteria, Rep. Naquetta Ricks is filming a video on her phone. She’s planning to post testimonials from community members on social media, to try and show that vaccines aren’t scary.
“I’m very familiar with this community,” she said. “I know some of the challenges, the barriers that they face. So it was an easy decision to try to create a pop-up clinic.”
She calls this model a “catalyst” for improving vaccination rates in communities of color.
“The more members of particularly impacted communities that are not getting the vaccine that start to get it ... the more that we can have testimonials of people who have gotten the vaccine that talk with their friends and their family members and tell them, ‘Hey, I've gotten the vaccine’... that will start to break down some of those barriers,” Ricks said. “So, yeah, I think it's a good step in the right direction.”
The slots at this clinic filled up so fast that she’s already planning another pop-up clinic in Aurora over the next few weeks to vaccinate hundreds more people. And she hopes it won't be the last.