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Black Philadelphians aren’t getting their fair share of COVID-19 vaccines. Faith leaders and hospitals are hearing a call to fix that.

Places of worship offer a safe space, familiar faces, and trusted priests, ministers, and imams to communicate to members eligible for vaccination the importance of getting shots.

Swanie Goldsmith receives her COVID-19 vaccine at the Main Line Health vaccination clinic inside the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia on Feb. 10, 2021.
Swanie Goldsmith receives her COVID-19 vaccine at the Main Line Health vaccination clinic inside the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia on Feb. 10, 2021.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Ronald Coleman felt a surge of anxiety at even the thought of getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I was very apprehensive,” he said. “I don’t know what it does to you.”

On Wednesday, though, Coleman, 76, got a shot in the community room of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Overbrook — the same space where he once attended Bible study, before the pandemic. Hearing about so many other people getting vaccinated without ill effects helped allay his concern, he said.

“I’m just going to try not to think about it and go on with my day,” he said.

The Wednesday clinic was among the first partnerships in the city between a church and a hospital system, in this case, Main Line Health, to help correct the imbalance of who is getting vaccinated. More than 40% of Philadelphians are Black, yet have received about 17% of the more than 129,000 doses administered in the city so far, though that number has steadily improved.

Even at clinics specifically intended for African Americans at high risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19, too many doses have been going to others, health experts say.

“The number of individuals with no health conditions who have never set foot in Black neighborhoods [coming to get vaccines] in the past month has been unconscionable,” said physician Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors COVID Consortium, who announced tighter rules around her group’s clinics on Wednesday. The consortium, which is supplied by the city, has for weeks used churches as a setting for their vaccination clinics and brought testing services to hard-hit communities throughout the pandemic.

» READ MORE: Philly residents have to go online to sign up for the coronavirus vaccine. But what about people who can’t?

Another hospital-church collaborative clinic is being hosted Saturday at Church of Christian Compassion, also in West Philadelphia, in a joint effort with more than a dozen area churches. There, the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Mercy Catholic Medical Center-Mercy Philadelphia will be offering 500 doses to people who have registered.

Places of worship offer a safe space, familiar faces, and trusted priests, ministers, and imams to communicate to members eligible for vaccination the importance of getting shots.

“The church has always been the focal point of where people have been able to come in terms of joyous times and celebratory times, but also in times of need,” said Martini Shaw, pastor of St. Thomas, the oldest Black Episcopal church in the country, which played a key role in treating people afflicted by a yellow fever epidemic in 18th-century Philadelphia.

“We really see ourselves now as continuing that legacy that began in 1792,” he said.

COVID’s toll

The Overbrook church has had its share of coronavirus tragedy in the past year, Shaw said.

“I have buried more people in the last 12 months than any year during my 15-year tenure,” he said. “It has been enormous.”

The church’s zip code, whose residents are nearly 90% Black, has seen 45 deaths and 648 cases per 10,000 people since the pandemic began, one of the highest rates in West Philadelphia, though more recently it has fared better than its neighbors.

» READ MORE: Black Americans may have to travel farther to get a COVID-19 vaccination, Pitt researchers find

Locally and nationally, Black Americans are more likely to be hospitalized and die of COVID-19. Yet more than half within the Black community, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, are skeptical of the vaccine, in part due to a legacy of mistreatment by the medical profession.

“We’re very concerned about the gap in the acceptance rate between the Black community and the white community,” said Jack Lynch, CEO of Main Line Health. “My goal is to be a part of the solution of dramatically increasing the Black community’s adoption rate in accepting the vaccine.”

Concerns about vaccination are so deep-seated that hospitals are seeing them emerge among their own staffs. Less than 40% of Main Line’s Black employees have agreed to be vaccinated, Lynch said. Penn’s number is similar, said Phil Okala, chief operating officer for the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Working with faith centers in the Black community gets doses to people who need them, Okala said, but also, he hopes, will help shift attitudes.

» READ MORE: Philly’s rough COVID-19 vaccine rollout adds challenge to reaching skeptical Black residents: ‘Our reticence is sacred’

“We’re trying to depend on people who upfront would be willing to get the vaccine and then would be willing to tell the rest of the community the vaccine is safe,” he said.

Main Line Health encouraged participation in Wednesday’s clinic by filming a video of doctors speaking about the importance of vaccination, and sending a doctor to speak with members in person. Though the hospital system’s four main facilities are outside the city, Lynch felt the disparity between doses that have gone to Black vs. white populations, and the number of Main Line patients from the city, made it important to participate in the clinic.

“I feel the obligation without regard to the politics, without regard to the state and the city,” he said. “I feel an obligation to help that community.”

Shaw, who is a trustee at Lankenau Medical Center, has told his congregation about the death and illness he’s seen this year. He urged them to weigh the risk of infection against fears about a vaccine that has been thoroughly tested and found to be safe. He’s seen people change their minds, he said.

What’s most valuable, though, is the example spiritual leaders can set.

“It helps with the community seeing that the vaccine is safe if our pastors are going to do it,” said Terrilynn Donnell, an associate pastor at the church hosting Penn and Mercy’s clinic Saturday.

Torturous scarcity

A cruel irony of this moment in the pandemic is that even despite the number of people reluctant to take the vaccine, there’s still not enough to go around. Swanie Goldsmith, 69, had no hesitation to be vaccinated, but couldn’t find a shot until the offer came through her church.

“I was really happy that the church, Father Shaw, made this arrangement because I really didn’t know how I was going to get vaccinated,” she said after getting a dose Wednesday.

Main Line had scheduled days for church members to register for vaccination. When phone lines opened, they filled all 150 slots in a few hours, Shaw said. About 600 church members have asked for doses. Most are on a waiting list.

» READ MORE: Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium to tighten requirements around vaccine distribution

As Black Philadelphians struggle to be vaccinated, Stanford, of the Black Doctors COVID Consortium, has seen so many people from outside the targeted areas show up for shots that she is implementing more stringent checks.

“We’re not going to be another testing or vaccination location that was set up for the underserved and then have that overrun by everyone else,” she said.

Many details about future vaccination clinics remain unresolved for Main Line and the Penn-Mercy partnership. The city has urged hospitals to begin sharing doses in the community, said James Garrow, spokesperson for the city Health Department, but it is still working on a mapping system to ensure hospitals are conducting outreach fairly.

“We are working to map these types of events to ensure that they’re being placed in an equitable way,” said Garrow, “and we will share those data with the hospitals to encourage them to continue to offer vaccines to those without easy access.”

Shaw would like to see vaccine doses available through his church routinely, he said. As of Wednesday, there were only 150 doses available, what Lynch called, “whistling in the wind.”

“But we’re going to be back in that community, we’ll increase the number,” he said. “We’re going to be part of the solution.”

Staff writer Aubrey Whelan contributed to this report.