Health District Works To Improve Vaccine Access For Black, Latino Metro East Residents
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
In January, as St. Clair County started making plans to administer vaccines to residents, East St. Louis resident Patricia Parker signed her name on the county health department’s list to be notified about an appointment.
It wasn’t long before East Side Health District called her to get her and her husband vaccinated. They received the first dose of the Moderna shot at the clinic in early February.
Parker didn’t expect to get an appointment so quickly. She’s grateful for the work of the district to ensure Black residents aren’t left behind in the vaccine rollout.
“I think that having it in East St. Louis provides another layer of security and confidence that East St. Louis residents are going to a place that they know and recognize, and not having to travel all the way across to Belleville to a service that should be more accessible,” Parker, 67, said about the clinic’s vaccination events in the area.
East Side Health District, based in East St. Louis, provides healthcare services to communities of color in southwestern Illinois. The four townships in its jurisdiction include East St. Louis, Canteen, Centreville and Stites.
Across the country, Black residents are severely underserved in vaccine access. In Illinois, although Black residents make up about 14% of the population, they represent about 9% of vaccine doses in the state, according to most recent data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Conversely, white residents make up about 61% of the state’s population and represent roughly 65% of vaccine doses. According to a March survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Black and Latinx adults in the U.S. are more likely to have concerns about vaccine access than white adults.
That’s why East Side Health District has taken a hands-on approach in going to the areas that they serve.
Since February, the health department has hosted weekly mobile clinics in its service area. The district has also reached out to local businesses and school districts for private vaccination events. On Saturday, East Side Health District will host another vaccination event at East St. Louis’ Lincoln Park to target the city’s homeless population.
The community-based approach is a strategy that’s essential to the work of East Side Health District, even before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Linda Joiner, the department’s program manager and public information officer, said it has to be that way.
“We have had to think outside of the box unlike some of the other health districts in our metropolitan area,” Joiner said. “Our motto is to be available and take the clinic to the people, and that’s for a number of reasons. Transportation is a problem, sometimes child care is a problem, space is a problem sometimes, so we have been finding venues that will accommodate the community that we’re in.”
‘It’s right here in town’
Around 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, there’s a line of about 30 people in a narrow hallway of the Clyde C. Jordan Senior Citizens Center in East St. Louis. The line is the first thing one sees upon entering the center. It leads from the entrance of the main area to a room around the corner.
Some people look nervous. Others look concerned. It’s very quiet, though. Perhaps silence is the only logical response while waiting in line to get a vaccine for a virus that has wreaked havoc on residents such as those in the East St. Louis area. With help from the National Guard, the center is one of the mobile clinics open to the public that the East Side Health District has hosted in the community. The district had about 60 scheduled appointments but were open to walk-ins.
Monica Jackson was there. She works in administration for BRIA of Belleville, a nursing home that was in “outbreak status” for COVID-19 during the summer. Although she was eligible to receive the vaccine earlier by being in the state’s 1A group, she was reluctant to get it. She received her first dose on Wednesday.
“Me, myself, with working in healthcare, I’ve seen a lot,” Jackson, an East St. Louis resident, said. “I’ve been through a lot, so it didn’t take a lot for me to get the vaccine, but I just stood back to see how people would react (to it) and what was going on.”
Jackson decided to take the vaccine now because she frequently travels and saw other people in her community getting it. She said East Side Health District helped with that process.
“When I called the health district, there were no problems,” Jackson, 45, said. “It went straight through after asking me the questions, and they scheduled me an appointment. It was a smooth process, and I got scheduled within a week of me calling them.”
Although she thinks a mass vaccination site should’ve been placed in East St. Louis (the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds in Belleville is the mass vaccination site in the county), she appreciates East Side Health District for making the vaccine accessible for residents in the area.
“They do have the resources, and this is like in the heart of the city,” Jackson said. “It’s accessible. It’s easy to get to. It’s a well-known place, so I think it’s easily accessible.”
Like Jackson, Edna Petty and her husband, who also live in East St. Louis, were hesitant to get the vaccine.
“As Black Americans, we were a little bit timid because we’re always the guinea pigs for things like (with) the Tuskegee Experiment, ” she said.
But, as COVID-19 cases started to rise in the state last month, she was more open to getting vaccinated. Only one problem, though: She didn’t want to have to travel to Belleville to get the shot. Hearing about the vaccination events with East Side Health District made the process less difficult.
“Yea, that’s what made it easier because different friends that he knew, some were going to the fairgrounds in Belleville, and we were wanting something that was a little closer, and then finally we called the health department and that’s when they said they were offering it at the Clyde Jordan Center.”
Edna’s husband Reginald got his first shot of Moderna at the center last month. Edna received her first Pfizer dose at East Side Health District. She said the health district eased their concerns about taking the vaccine.
“That helped a lot because it’s right here in town,” Edna Petty, 75, said. “The people that were administering the vaccine were very nice and knowledgeable. That helped a lot with the fears and then they had everybody spaced apart, nobody was sitting on top of each other; there were no long lines.”
Reaching more people
As of last week, East Side Health District had administered 12,600 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, with about 250 of those being given daily. The district’s public vaccine hubs include some of the following: Clyde C. Jordan Senior Citizens Center (6755 State St., East St Louis, IL 62203), Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center (Argonne Drive, East St Louis, IL 62204), Cahokia Fitness Center (509 Camp Jackson Road, Cahokia, IL 62206) and the Fairmont City Community Center (4001 Cookson Road., Fairmont City, IL 62201).
Residents can also receive the vaccine at the district’s office. Appointments can be made by calling 618-271-8722, and, now, walk-ins are welcome. The district started walk-in appointments two weeks ago, according to Linda Joiner, its public information officer.
“We have always been prone to making things accessible and making our services convenient,” Joiner said. “We have satellite locations, and we’ve had them for years. We have an office for our WIC clients in Cahokia. We have an office in Fairmont City that has joined a clinic that is sponsored by Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation. We have our Washington Park satellite site for sexually transmitted infections and the like. We have rural-based clinics. We have always taken our services to the people.”
She added: “(We’re doing) anything to make it convenient. We don’t want people making excuses to get the necessary healthcare that they need.”
For Paulette Shipp, finding access to get the vaccine in East St. Louis wasn’t a smooth process.
In January, she had difficulty trying to figure out where she and her 88-year-old mom would get the vaccine. She said she called East Side Health District and St. Clair County Health Department, but received minimal help. She signed herself and her mom up on the county health department’s vaccine notification list, but was concerned that they hadn’t heard anything about making an appointment.
“It was ridiculous,” Shipp, 68, said. “My mother’s doctor is in East St. Louis, and my doctor is here, too. Nobody knew when they were going to get anything. The health district didn’t know anything. It was really kind of strange, and you know, my mother should’ve been the first in line because she has COPD and a few other underlying conditions. I was just really concerned about what they are going to do about us in East St. Louis.”
Although Shipp said her mom was notified about making an appointment in February through the county’s health department, she said she wasn’t notified about making hers. She eventually found a different way to get vaccinated, although she still had to travel outside of East St. Louis. Shipp said the county health department still hasn’t contacted her.
“We ended up having to go outside (of East St. Louis) It was really difficult,” Shipp said. “Then, all of a sudden, probably a month after I got mine, they had started advertising they would do it here at a center in East St. Louis on certain dates. Everything worked out, though. That’s the important part.”
Joiner admits that the rollout wasn’t easy when the district started administering vaccines. She said there was a time when their office’s phones crashed because of the demand, but their staff tried calling everyone back.
“Getting through, initially, was cumbersome, but we called our clients back and they were encouraged to utilize St. Clair County also,” Joiner said. “So there will be a small number of residents (who) are seemingly dissatisfied. That’s with anything, but we really go out of our way to appease the situation.
“ This is a pandemic. People are afraid. People are concerned. People are fearful of the well-being of their senior mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles. We understand that. Anytime somebody wasn’t served by us is really unfortunate.”
She added: “It’s a mountain. It’s a very, very high mountain, and we’ve got to get to the top before we can come down, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
That’s why she said her team is working to ensure residents are informed about the district’s services, especially this weekend’s pop up vaccination event in East St. Louis. She wants to reach as many people as possible.
“When your population is 99.9% people of color, Hispanics included in that number, you’ve got to have your head on right,” Joiner said. “You’ve got to have a mindset that is clear. We’ve got to serve the people in this community first. Got to make them a priority. We haven’t closed the door to others, but we have made those who are residents of these four townships and the surrounding areas first.”
Saturday’s vaccination event will take place at 606 S. 15th Street in East St. Louis. Although Joiner said walk-ins are welcome, appointments can still be made by calling 618-271-8722 ext 102.
DeAsia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.