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'I saved a life': Richmond volunteers work hard to combat vaccine skepticism in low-income communities
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overcoming vaccine skepticism in area

'I saved a life': Richmond volunteers work hard to combat vaccine skepticism in low-income communities

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Life-threatening side effects from COVID-19 vaccines are extremely rare, but Bradford Taylor was concerned something bad could happen to him if he got a shot.

Still, he kept talking to Lawrence Robinson, who has been posting up outside Walgreens in downtown Richmond every day to intercept people walking along East Broad Street. Robinson wears his own vaccination card around his neck, passes out flyers and encourages people to get shots. Taylor knows Robinson and knows he’s a good guy, but it took several conversations over a few months to change his mind.

With Robinson’s assurance — again — on Wednesday that he felt fine and did not get seriously ill from the vaccine, Taylor finally walked into the Walgreens. He came out smiling, holding his own proof-of-vaccination card.

“I feel all right,” said Taylor, 30, of Henrico County.

“I saved a life,” Robinson said proudly.

Robinson is a passionate volunteer for Team Ujima, a partnership of the Mid-Atlantic A.M.E. Zion Church, the University of Maryland School of Medicine and several other organizations, that formed this summer to provide vaccination outreach in communities with low vaccination rates.

The effort stems from a $7.8 million award from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration geared toward vaccination outreach efforts across Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia.

State health data for the four-week period ending Sept. 5 shows that infections among Black residents accounted for 67% of COVID cases in Richmond, the highest of any other racial or ethnic group; far exceeding their share of the population.

Robinson, who grew up in Gilpin Court and lives in Church Hill, reported encountering skepticism of the vaccines while doing outreach work in communities of color and said he has persuaded only 15 to 20 people to get shots while working East Broad Street every day.

Health experts and federal, state and local officials are trying to tackle lagging vaccination rates with a mix of public information campaigns, policy guidance and employee mandates, some of which have elicited legal challenges and protests.

Nationally, President Joe Biden outlined on Thursday an extensive set of measures pointed at sidestepping the delta variant’s rampant spread and growing COVID case counts, with nearly every locality in Virginia reporting high levels of community transmission.

The administration’s new COVID strategy aims to target sluggish vaccination rates by requiring businesses with 100 or more employees to require workers to get vaccines or face weekly testing.

Hesitancy persists among conservative white communities — where mitigation mandates are viewed as an infringement on personal choice — and in communities of color — where mistrust in government and medical institutions has deep roots.

Just over 37% of eligible Black people in Richmond are fully vaccinated, the lowest of any racial or ethnic group, according to state estimates that do not include details for an “other” race category. The data reflects rates of about 56% for whites, 60% for Latinos 60% for Asian and Pacific Islanders, and 88% for Native Americans.

As of late August, nearly all of the least-vaccinated parts of the city and Henrico were in South Richmond, the city’s public housing units and eastern Henrico — places where the poverty rate has soared as high as 80%.

Local health officials have been opening vaccination hubs throughout the least-vaccinated areas of Richmond and Henrico, seeking to address the problem of waning demand for vaccines as infections rise and unvaccinated people carry the most risk of hospitalization and death from the virus.

Velina Glenn, regional coordinator for Team Ujima, said she initially set a goal of getting 2,500 people vaccinated in central Virginia by Nov. 30. But after being surprised by the level of skepticism the team has encountered, Glenn has lowered her expectations while remaining hopeful that the volunteers can make their goal.

In Richmond, about 21 people have been vaccinated at five clinics held by Team Ujima since early August, including an event on Saturday in the Hillside Court public housing community in South Side. At least 1,000 informational flyers have been distributed, and volunteers have informed many residents of clinic locations. It’s impossible to know how many others have gotten vaccinated on their own after receiving information about the coronavirus from Team Ujima.

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At the root of vaccine hesitancy among people of color in Richmond is the history of systemic racism in American society. In conversations with Team Ujima volunteers, many people who are skeptical of being vaccinated have mentioned the Tuskegee study that began in 1932.

The study involved 399 Black men with syphilis and 201 who did not have the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers did not collect the informed consent of the participants, who were told they were being treated for “bad blood.”

The participants were not offered penicillin, even though by 1943 it was the treatment of choice for the disease and was becoming widely available.

Robinson and the Rev. Robin Mines, a Richmond organizer for Team Ujima, said many people incorrectly believe that the study’s participants were injected with syphilis instead of being denied penicillin.

On Saturday afternoon, Team Ujima partnered with church congregations and other community organizations to hold the vaccination event at Hillside Court.

The five people who were vaccinated at the event each got a $25 or $50 gift card to DoorDash. One of them was Jason Jones, a 42-year-old Hillside resident who decided to get a shot on Saturday so he can safely see his 1-month-old granddaughter for the first time.

Team Ujima is holding vaccination events at Super Fresh at Southside Plaza on Friday from 9 to 11 a.m. and at Southwood Apartments on Sept. 25 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The group also is planning a vaccination clinic at Hood Temple A.M.E. Zion Church on Clay Street sometime in October and another one in Gilpin Court in November.

The group plans to set up an information table outside the Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department on East Broad Street.

The primary purpose of the vaccination clinics, Mines said, is to “undo the false narratives and conspiracy theories that cause vaccination hesitancy, and get more of our neighbors vaccinated so we’ll all be safer.”

Mines said it is critical that faith leaders spread the message.

“The church has always led when it came to civil rights and bridging the gap between Black people and government keeping people informed about what is going on,” she said. “A lot of Black people, they won’t deal with a lot of organizations, but they will deal with the church. They will at least listen.”

Mines said she has been telling vaccine skeptics “that they’re not putting COVID in you, that it was not a rushed process.”

Some people tell Mines they fear they will be injected with the HIV virus or that the vaccination effort aims to make them sterile.

“Some Black people have decided they can’t trust anything a white person says,” said Mines, president of the Swansboro West Civic Association. “And to me, what you’re doing is putting chains on yourself — you’re living in fear. You’re doing exactly what they want you to do.”

In downtown Richmond on Wednesday, soon after Taylor decided to get vaccinated at the urging of Robinson, Marvelous Rowe told Taylor: “They’re making you take it.”

“Nobody’s making me take it,” Taylor returned.

Rowe, a 34-year-old resident of Church Hill, said the coronavirus didn’t just materialize out of nowhere. “This was something that was placed,” he said.

Nearby, 19-year-old Yeezy Green was leaning against a bus stop shelter, out of the pouring rain, wearing a mask. Robinson asked Green if he’d been vaccinated.

“Nope,” he said. “I feel like it would kill me, like it’s poison. I haven’t had any symptoms.”

Robinson, 50, understands the skepticism.

He joined the Nation of Islam at age 18, where he said he learned to distrust and reject white people and systems they imposed. He said he opted out of getting any vaccinations for his oldest daughter for religious reasons.

Having been raised under Robinson’s belief system, his daughter, now 32, is resistant to getting the COVID vaccine or any vaccinations for her two children. She is now among the many people Robinson is trying to convince.

He’s going to keep trying.

Editor's note: Jason Jones got his COVID vaccination on Saturday so he can safely see his 1-month-old granddaughter for the first time, not his daughter. The information was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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