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Hampton Roads faith leaders meeting weekly to ensure equity in vaccine distribution

A state health leader said Virginia is ramping up efforts to ensure vaccine distribution is equitable.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Dr. Tremayne Johnson, senior pastor of Zion Baptist Church, is one of more than 80 faith leaders in Hampton Roads logging on to weekly Zoom meetings to stay on top of Virginia’s vaccine rollout.

Since February, the group meets once per week for 30-minute “vaccination boosts.” 

“If the pastors are informed, then the people are informed,” said Dr. Johnson. 

For each session, the group invites various state leaders in order to ask questions and share concerns. All of this to make sure the people in their communities, who are often at higher risk to the virus, have the most up-to-date information and equal access to COVID-19 vaccines. 

“While they are representing the state overall, we are in the community,” said Dr. Johnson who also leads a coalition of faith leaders in the Peninsula called 757 Concerned Clergy.  “So, it is still a struggle to make sure the voiceless who are right here on the ground every day are really represented.”  

“We are just doing what we can to make sure we get as many people vaccinated as possible,” said Gaylene Kanoyton, founder of Celebrate Healthcare and organizer of the weekly Zoom call. “The whole key is to make sure we have information out there and resources to get people the help they need.” 

On Tuesday, the pastors heard from State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver. He said the Virginia Department of Health is bringing on a firm to help with community outreach and work with faith leaders across the Commonwealth to do more targeted vaccination events in Black and Latino communities. Research has shown that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the virus. 

In that call, Dr. Oliver said the state is ramping up efforts to ensure vaccine distribution is equitable, and going forward, the state is going to put money and resources into making that happen. 

“While we’ve had some efforts in that area, we recognize it is not nearly enough," said Dr. Oliver.

A state-formed health equity workgroup is working on a strategic plan to vaccinate people in communities at risk for COVID-19, Dr. Oliver told the group Tuesday. Across Hampton Roads, Black churches have already served as vaccination sites via partnerships between faith and health leaders. 

Despite studies showing higher distrust among Black and Latino communities in COVID-19 vaccines, Kanoyton, Dr. Oliver, and several pastors said they rarely hear those concerns and that more people want the vaccine but are worried about access. 

Dr. Johnson acknowledges most of his congregation are elderly people over the age of 65 years old, and many do not use email or sometimes check their phones. It’s one of the many things he thinks about when discussing vaccine distribution and why he thinks these conversations about equity are pivotal. 

“We don’t have to run around the elephant in the room. We can actually talk about it and also gain fruit from our conversation and from that conversation go out and do what we’ve been talking about,” he said. “We want to make sure that while things are going on at the state level, it is trickling down to make sure that the people that are recipients of that info are having a better quality of life.” 

Kanoyton, who is on one of the state’s advisory groups, said there are talks of caravans for vaccine distribution in high-risk communities. She also said another big issue for her team is making sure people know the vaccine is free.