From the parking lot at Center of Hope Community Church in Oakland, Ryan Austin, an Oakland-based educator and artist, handed her phone to a person nearby, pressed record, then stepped straight into her phone camera’s view with her 7-year-old son, Onyx. Posed in front of white tents where people were rolling up sleeves, Austin launched an Instagram Live to tell thousands of her followers that she was about to get her first dose of Covid-19 vaccine.
“I’m standing in line, about to get mine. I’m getting vaccinated with The Town, Umoja Health. The sun is shining, music is playing, it’s lit. Come on out, y’all, come on out,” Austin, 40, said, as hip-hop played in the background. The camera view spun, revealing those who chose to get their vaccine in their car, and others who had walked up for one that were now seated on black fold-out chairs under the morning sun.
Austin was one of the 232 people inoculated at the walk-up and drive-thru pop-up community vaccination and testing site on March 6, an effort run by the organization Umoja Health, a confederation of at least three dozen Alameda community partners and clinics, the Alameda County Department of Public Health, and UCSF.
The group has been encouraging testing in Black communities in Oakland since fall 2020. Now it was back — armed with tests and shots.
Umoja leaders like Dr. Kim Rhoads — a UCSF associate professor of epidemiology and bBiostatistics and the Director of the Office of Community Engagement at the UCSF cancer center — realized that a community-based approach to vaccines may have a higher likelihood of persuading residents, especially Black residents, who were less likely to visit a clinic or hospital to get vaccinated.
This was supported by Umoja data collected from its testing efforts in the fall that found even Black patients at historically Black health clinics were gravitating to Umoja pop-up sites for Covid testing. The pop-ups, explains Rhoads, were more accessible and fun, and its volunteers were familiar neighborhood residents.
“We’re here in the community, we’re Black,” Rhoads said of the vaccination site. “Why wouldn’t you want to come here [instead of hospitals or clinics]? We got a D.J., friendly faces, and giveaways.”
On March 6, those who got vaccinated either had a pre-registered appointment, or were added to a waitlist line in case extra doses were available for use. The Alameda County Department of Public Health provided the medicine.
Since its origin in late summer of 2020, Umoja has aimed to engage more Black Oakland residents in Covid-19 efforts. Nationally Black and Latinx residents are disproportionately dying from Covid-19. In Alameda County, Black residents lead in covid death rates. Similar efforts in the Mission by local organizers like Unidos en Salud has attempted to address these inequities as well.
And Umoja’s other goal to reach and vaccinate more Black and Latinx residents appeared successful so far, according to preliminary data from the March 6 testing event. A.J. Burleson, who has volunteered with Umoja since the beginning, told Mission Local that about 65 percent of those vaccinated at Center of Hope identified as Black, 15 percent identified as Latinx, and 20 percent identified as any other race including white, Asian, or other.
The turnout’s ethnic makeup was due in part to the on-the-ground outreach the week before, in which Umoja volunteers went into East Oakland to sign up interested and eligible Black residents and a handful of nearby senior housing communities and businesses. It’s history within the community also boosted recognition from passersby.
“Umoja is branded now. It’s a network of community members. It’s street-certified,” Burleson said.
And word gets around. Rhoads encouraged those who got a shot to post a picture on social media with #UmojaHealth. About 77 percent of respondents to an Umoja survey said that knowing another friend or acquaintance had gotten vaccinated, influenced their own decision to do so. Ryan, the Oakland-based artist and educator, shed her inoculation worries after her brother, parents and grandmother all got theirs and were fine; that’s what she wanted to share with her Instagram followers during her Live session.
Mark, a 35-year-old Asian resident who lives a few blocks down from Center of Hope, said he wasn’t ready to get one until he saw limited side-effects in people he knew who’d received a vaccine. As a manager and driver for a private medical transportation service, he and his company decided everyone needed to be protected before they resume work. On March 6, he waited in line with his wife. “I said, ‘All right, let’s do it.’”
Even so, misinformation and concern about the vaccine has caused people to defer getting their shot. Though these reservations persist across races, the history of medical misconduct and wrongdoing toward Black communities have made some in that group especially reluctant. Though attitudes have begun to change, back in the fall Umoja reported that only 40 percent of Black respondents would get a vaccine — out of all the races surveyed, it was the least likely group.
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Kevin Epps, a filmmaker from Bayview Hunters Point and a veteran Umoja volunteer, said although he has been doing outreach and trusts the vaccine now, he still cried when he received his shot on March 6. It was a “rollercoaster of emotion,” he said. During his shot, he thought about the Tuskegee experiment, in which the federal government refused to treat Black men who had syphilis for 40 years, in the name of research: “Do I trust the system?”
But Epps also thought of how, when he tries to convince residents to get immunized during Umoja door-to-door canvassing, the first question people ask him is if he got one. Now, he can say he has. And, Rhoads answered all his questions, which sold him on a dose. “That built my trust up. And overall, it was a great experience.”
Though work is still left to be done, Epps said, more Black residents are coming out. Just the day after the March 6 vaccination event, mistaken residents formed a line outside of a testing-only Umoja event in hopes of securing a vaccine. They instead got added to the waitlist; most there were Black, Burleson said.
“We come out. Stop talking about the Black community as a monolith,” Burleson said. “The more information that’s available, the more people will come.”
Meanwhile, white residents still lead in vaccination percentages, according to Alameda County Health Department data from the morning of March 6. About 24.7 percent of the White population over 16 years old has received one dose. This compares to about 16 percent of Alameda County’s Black population over 16; 13 percent of the Hispanic population over 16; and about 19 percent of Asian population over 16 that received one dose. At the time, 313,646 first vaccine doses and 120,066 second doses had been administered, the county Covid-19 dashboard showed.
Still, more people are becoming eligible to get vaccinated, and allegedly more supply is coming. Fred Martin, 64, recently qualified as an essential worker for his work as a contractor — his latest will be a project to bolster covid testing and vaccine sites in downtown Oakland. He was “elated” to snag his shot at Umoja on March 6, which had an availability before Walgreens, where he’s on a waitlist.
“My doctor told me to get it as soon as I could,” Martin said. “I said, ‘you don’t have to tell me twice.’”
Another Umoja vaccination event is slated for this weekend, though the location is to be determined. This story will be updated if and when that information is available.
For more information about Umoja Health and its testing and vaccine events, go to www.unitedinhealthoakland.org. The Oaklandside rounded up other places to get vaccinated in Alameda County and Oakland here, and the information is updated weekly.