Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force clinic opens at Aberdeen church to inoculate hard-to-reach populations against COVID

James Whitlow, The Aegis, Bel Air, Md.
·6 min read

Apr. 8—Barbara Kell, a 74-year-old Aberdeen resident, has been attending services at Mt. Zion Baptist Church for about 30 years. On Wednesday, she came to the church's Aberdeen campus not to worship, but to get her second shot of the COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic put on by the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force.

The drive-through vaccine clinic at the church on Michael Lane, off Old Post Road in Aberdeen, entered its second day of vaccinating the population Wednesday, though there were some communication hiccups along the way with local health officials. The task force's first clinic at the church took place March 31.

The clinic will be open Wednesdays and Saturdays at Mt. Zion until the end of May, except for on Saturday, May 1, said Col. Andrew Collins with the Maryland National Guard. Collins is second to Brigadier Gen. Janeen Birckhead, who runs the vaccine equity task force.

Robin Williams, a volunteer who oversaw and coordinated the clinic, said it is open for the Harford County community as well as surrounding counties. The clinic Wednesday was scheduled to deliver 190 vaccines, she said, with the goal of administering 3,000 in total.

"We are open to everybody that registers," she said, which people can do online at mtzionbptchurch.org/update or chosencdc.org.

While it was strange to see the line of cars roll through the parking lot she is so familiar with, Kell said she thought the effort was "awesome." She got her second dose of the COVID vaccine Wednesday, which marks one step closer to life returning to some semblance of normal, she said. When it does, she wants to hug her grandchildren — all seven of them.

"I look forward to that, spending time with my grandkids, just giving them a hug and cooking meals for them and all that," she said. "Typical Nana stuff."

Kell said the process of getting a vaccine was smooth and without issue. She encouraged everyone to get inoculated.

The Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force identifies and delivers COVID vaccine to underserved, hard-to-identify populations in the state.

Collins said the task force receives requests to set-up clinics around the state. When it gets such a request, personnel run it through a battery on analytic tools before deciding on a place to host a clinic. According to the methodology, factors like a population's age, income, educational attainment, unemployment rate and racial demographics are weighed to determine where the task force is most needed.

Many requests come from faith-based organizations, but others come through local health departments that hope to run equity projects of their own.

While there are many variables to setting up a clinic, if everything is going well, it generally takes about two to three weeks, Collins said. Going within the community to spread the word has led to success for the task force.

"When you use a faith-based organization, there is already a trusted voice that can reach out to their congregation, to their local community, and say 'Hey, for those of you having a hard time getting a vaccine, all you have to do is come to our location,'" Collins said. "Building that grassroots capability really helps within the community."

Collins said more task force clinics could come to Harford County. But expectations of the Harford County Health Department in the effort came as a surprise to County Health Officer Dr. David Bishai, who said the task force had not contacted the department about its role in making the Mt. Zion clinic run.

Bishai said the task force has since figured out the communication issues, but that the state has largely kept local health departments at arm's-length in its vaccination strategy. The church, not the state, contacted the health department, which was later included in the planning process for the clinic.

"We got involved after the church said 'please help,'" Bishai said. "This entire pandemic, there has been a missing coordination between state vaccine and local vaccine. We find out about things from here and not from headquarters."

The task force sets up the sites, but its role is not to remain at them. Volunteers distributed shots at the church Wednesday, and the site is supposed to gradually wean itself off vaccines provided through the state and begin receiving supply from the local health department, which qualifies for additional state allocations of doses to meet demand at the equity clinic. That was not initially articulated to the health department, Bishai said.

"I found out here, in this parking lot, today," Bishai said. "Luckily, I can make it; I have vaccines for the request."

Because of the additional state allocations to the equity site, the health department will not have to divert doses from its other clinics, including one coming to the Woodbridge Shopping Center in Edgewood, Bishai said. The county plans to establish a clinic at the vacant Mars supermarket there, with plans to renovate the building in time to open a clinic the first week of May.

Colvin Bennett, executive director of the nonprofit Chosen, which is affiliated with Mt. Zion, said the organization reached out to the equity task force to get the vaccine clinic. He said the proximity of the clinic could help get underserved residents a vaccine. Many in the community are elderly or do not have cars, so food drives, flyers and social media are used to get the word out, Bennett said.

In convincing people who are skeptical of the vaccine, Bennett said he reminds them of the statistics.

"We know that COVID has killed over 500,000 people," Bennett said. "We know that the vaccine is safe; it is not mass-killing everyone like the COVID."

Tracie Owens, 51 of Middle River, said a friend sent her a link to register for the clinic. And that link came at the perfect time for her; she will be visiting her parents in Arkansas the day she is scheduled to receive her second dose of the Moderna vaccine. She made the plan to visit her parents — who are vaccinated — before she got her shot.

"I mainly got the shot for my parents," she said happily. "It just lined right up."

Owens said her experience at the clinic was quick and easy. Though she does not like needles, she did not even notice the shot in her arm, she said, missing the opportunity to take a photo of her vaccination.

"She said, 'Oh, are you still trying to get a picture of it, because I am done,'" Owens said with a laugh.