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Empty Vaccine Appointments Mark A New Priority: Hesitant And Hard-To-Reach Oklahomans

Catherine Sweeney / StateImpact Oklahoma
The Oklahoma City-County Health Department worked with 16 churches to hold a vaccine clinic at Star Spencer High School in northeast Oklahoma City, Okla.

After a grueling year, the promised beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic has come. But getting back to normal through vaccines means hard-to-reach or resistant communities need shots, too.

For Voice of Hope pastor Terrell McCoy, the fight against the coronavirus is personal.

“Our particular congregation has been impacted by COVID,” he said. “We could look at these five deaths that have occurred over the last year attributed to COVID. We even had two mysterious deaths that occurred before they started counting.”

Terrell and his wife, Beverly, went to one of the local vaccination clinics that Oklahoma-City County Health Department sponsored. This one took place in late March at Star Spencer High School, in northeast Oklahoma City, a historically Black community. The department worked with more than a dozen churches in the area to coordinate sign ups in their congregations.

The McCoys say they wanted to lead by example, and show what a blessing the vaccine can be. And to remind people this isn’t their first rodeo with shots.

“When we were growing up, we got our shots,” Beverly McCoy said. “We don’t have chicken pox, measles, mumps, polio because of the vaccinations. And so I’m grateful.”

Mass vaccination sites — which just a few months ago felt like a pipe dream — are now seeing days pass with thousands of slots left empty. These Points of Dispensing Sites, or PODS for short, were a major part of the state’s vaccine strategy at the beginning of this process, but Deputy Commissioner of Health Keith Reed says that’s changing.

“Up to this point, it’s been very much about setting up PODS, putting appointments out there and asking people to come to us,” he said during a media briefing. “That strategy will need to change. We will start maybe pushing more into the community.”

Essentially, the people who are willing and able to travel out to these sites have done so. The vaccine program is entering a new chapter: reaching Oklahomans who are either vaccine hesitant or facing barriers.

Local health departments and hospitals are finding the solutions to each of those problems overlap. The community leaders and organizations who can shore up trust in the vaccines can also help remove some of the obstacles residents face when they do want the shot.

For the clinic the McCoys attended in March, the Oklahoma-City County Health Department partnered with 16 local churches. Church leaders not only encouraged members to attend and get their shots, but also helped with registration — a process that has been a barrier for several vulnerable communities. For example, because of the tech-heavy nature of the state’s online portal, the process has been especially difficult for seniors.

Molly Fleming is a spokeswoman for the city-county health department. She says her organization’s existing relationships with the faith community help outreach efforts. But that vaccine clinic highlighted another critical partnership: local schools.

“They already have that established trust in their area,” she said. “And so we hope that if people see us set up at a school, then they’ll trust the school to come here because they’ll trust us more. The other thing is that the schools are just huge. The high schools are great sites. We really like Grant and Douglas and Spencer because they’re also spread out across the county and that helps us reach everybody in the county.”

OU Health agrees, and is hosting a first-dose vaccination site Friday at Santa Fe South High School, partially to reach more in the Latino community. Halley Reeves, Vice President for Community Health Impact, says OU Health chose the site after monitoring the city for hardest hit areas, and for locations that would better serve harder to reach patients.

“If you look at vaccine distribution across the country, we’re seeing that certain populations, including those who don’t speak English as their native language or those who are from a minority community, there’s additional barriers to getting vaccinated,” she said. “And also, if you look at the mortality rates associated with COVID, you see that there is a heightened risk.”

Reaching underserved communities requires more resources, such as bilingual volunteers and vaccinators, and building an appointment portal that’s available in other languages.

Despite rapid vaccination, Oklahoma is not in the clear. Thousands are still sick. Hospitalizations and deaths are still taking place. Again, Pastor Terrel and Beverly McCoy are seeing it first hand.

“We even have someone who’s in the hospital now on a ventilator,” Terrell McCoy said. “It’s not over.”

Beverly McCoy added, “And we want to be an example for others as leaders that this is something that’s going to help all of us.”


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Catherine Sweeney was StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter from 2020 to 2023.
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