With members of BIPOC communities in Colorado still facing obstacles to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, pop-up clinics and other efforts have sought to promote equality in the vaccine distribution process. An ongoing clinic in Aurora has been particularly effective in reaching these communities – with around 2,000 syringes in two months. It is noteworthy that this project is not run by the government or a medical institution. It is fully managed by a local couple and their friends.
Dr. Cynthia Hazel, Research Manager at the OMNI Institute, and Dr. Kweku Hazel, a Surgical Fellow at UCHealth, has been on a year-long journey providing vital health information and resources to the black community. Originally from Ghana, Kweku moved to the United States as a high school student and then attended medical school in Texas. While studying medicine, he found that members of the black community often had questions and uncertainties about medical care because of their experience of systemic racism. So he started a program to encourage his classmates to visit barbershops and salons in black communities, where they could answer questions and learn more about blacks’ experience of medical care. Meanwhile, after studying public health policy in the UK, Cynthia worked for years providing health education to the elderly and rural women in Ghana, and later moved to the Aurora area when she and Kweku married in 2014.
Their educational mission has not ceased since they moved here. In their spare time, the couple have held numerous educational meetings to reach out to black populations on issues such as diabetes and obesity. Efforts were still going strong when the first COVID-19 cases appeared in Colorado last year.
“When the pandemic broke out, it was natural for many of these groups we worked with to reach out to us with questions,” said Cynthia. “People from different backgrounds and cultural values have their own views of what health is and how to interpret health outcomes, and so much misinformation has been spread in our community. So people started to get in touch. “
The couple started out by simply answering questions, but their COVID-related work grew quickly after they partnered with UCHealth to share their story on the organization’s website. They also took the opportunity to share a photo showing that Kweku had received his first dose of the vaccine.
“We were no longer private individuals. We had so many people coming in and we did quite a few educational events afterwards to give people the facts so they could make the right decision for themselves, ”said Kweku. “And a lot of people who decided to take the vaccine came back to us and asked how do we get the vaccine now?”
Cynthia said the influx of questions about access made the couple even more aware of the community access gap. In late January, data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment showed that of all those vaccinated, less than 2% were people from the black community, even though that community makes up 3.92% of the total Colorado population. By April 28, after a series of efforts to reach this community, the number had risen to 2.58% – but this still reflects the lack of access these people have faced since vaccine distribution began.
Faced with these gaps in access, the Hazels once again stepped up their efforts and reached out to the CDPHE asking for vaccine doses to be administered at a pop-up clinic at Solid Rock Baptist Church, a Ghanaian immigrant church in Aurora. This clinic was run entirely by the Hazels and medical and non-medical volunteers. This first clinic ran on February 20 and gave an initial dose of vaccine to 220 people.
Since then, the clinics have continued in the same location once a month, distributing 851 shots on March 20 and 1,045 shots on April 17. Cynthia added that the clinic’s original intent was to reach the population of black and African immigrants has since expanded to include the Latin community – which accounts for just 8.76% of people vaccinated, according to CDPHE April 28 data although Latinx people make up 21.69% of the state’s population.
At the Hazels’ most recent clinic, where 1,045 syringes were administered, 56% of the patients were from the Latinx community and a total of 84% from the BIPOC community. The effort was mainly promoted through word of mouth, and Kweku said the couple made sure patients didn’t have to worry about obstacles like costs or immigration status – the clinic is always free and never collects information about it being shared for immigration investigation purposes.
“This has been a rare occasion where we have the community’s attention,” added Kweku. “About 12 years ago, I could hardly get people excited about hearing stories about high blood pressure and diabetes. Now I can have a zoom call with 150 people in the community who want to know more about vaccines, and I can easily bring in information about diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure at the same time. People are now more receptive to the health message. “
The next clinic will take place on May 15th, although it has not yet been decided whether first doses will be available or whether this clinic will only be a second dose clinic. Looking ahead, the Hazels, who have been invited to join the Colorado Vaccine Equity Task Force since this work began, say they will continue their outreach efforts with these communities.
“It almost felt like a calling because Kweku and I are very uniquely positioned to do this job. A lot of people who have our type of education don’t always have that community experience, and sometimes there are people who have a lot of community experience but don’t know how to do that type of work. We serve as a bridge, ”said Cynthia. “This is an important issue and the work must continue.”
For more information on the upcoming clinic on May 15, call 720-432-0296.