When members of Rev. Patrick Jones’ Eastside congregation at Greater Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church told him they were having trouble registering for COVID-19 vaccines through the City of San Antonio, Jones took it upon himself to do something about it.
As president of the Baptist Ministers’ Union (BMU) of San Antonio and Vicinity, Jones utilized his network of 78 San Antonio congregations – most of which are located in areas of San Antonio with relatively few health care resources – to start hosting pop-up vaccine clinics.
Clinics, doctor’s offices, and personnel from the city’s Metropolitan Health District contact him and the BMU network when they have vaccine doses they want to distribute to residents on the East Side.
“They’ll call me and say, ‘We have X amount for y’all,’ and I’ll start getting the word to the churches,” Jones said. “Most of the time our events are planned … within hours. Not days, not weeks. Hours.”
The pop-up clinics are important because available state-level data indicates white Texans are getting vaccinated at almost twice the rate as Latinos and more than six times that of Black residents, the Texas Tribune found. District 2, which has a Latino majority of 57%, has historically contained the largest portion of San Antonio’s Black residents; nearly 21% of the district’s 180,000 residents are Black, according to 2018 data.
Jones said he and his network have been provided with roughly 500 to 600 shots per pop-up event. Finding a location to administer the vaccines is usually pretty easy, with pastors in the BMU volunteering their churches, Jones said.
After securing a location, Jones said he and the other officers in the BMU use social media and word-of-mouth to notify Eastside residents of the event. Each time, more residents have shown up seeking shots than vaccines were available, he said. So far the effort has resulted in 2,000 residents getting vaccinated, he added.
Jones said his work hasn’t been aimed at aiding any one ethnic group in particular; he’s just been trying to help more San Antonio residents in underserved districts get access to vaccines.
“Our prayer is just to help,” he said.
Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2) said she is glad to see this grassroots effort on San Antonio’s East Side after advocating for more vaccines in her district.
State data shows COVID-19 has carved along racial lines in Texas, including in Bexar County, having affected a disproportionate number of Black and Latino families.
In Bexar County, Latinos make up 2 out of every 5 vaccinated residents despite making up the majority of county residents. White residents represent a slightly greater percentage (30.2%) of vaccinated people than their proportion of the population (27.1%).
Black residents in Bexar County, who account for 8.6% of the local population, represent just 3.2% of the vaccinated population.
Based on information from the City in February, a significant portion of the vaccines went to people living in the northern sector of Bexar County.
The City’s Public Health Administrator, Miguel Cervantes, said Metro Health has been conducting outreach efforts to “assist individuals” in “areas … that are most impacted by COVID-19” to get vaccine appointments scheduled.
San Antonio Metropolitan Health District spokeswoman Michelle Vigil added that Metro Health uses census tracts to “guide where the most need is in all districts.”
“SA Metro Health makes every effort to address any concerns or issues to make sure everyone who is eligible has access to the vaccine,” City Public Information Officer Cleo Garcia said via email.
Barriers existing on the East and South sides of San Antonio that have made it more difficult for their residents to get vaccinated have included transportation disparities, lack of access to the internet, and a disproportionate distribution of health care facilities across the city, Andrews-Sullivan said.
“I’d like to applaud our faith-based outreach for stepping up to the call of action of the community,” Andrews-Sullivan said. “Our faith-based outreach has always been the strongest part of the African American community, the strongest part of the East Side and the inner city of District 2. So that’s where we can get a lot more done.”
Some of the BMU churches that have hosted clinics include Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church, St. Stephens Baptist Church, Bethany Missionary Baptist Church, and Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, Jones said.
Pop-up clinics like these will be necessary in the upcoming months, said public health specialist and epidemiologist Cherise Rohr-Allegrini, especially with the state promising vaccine supply will increase starting next week as all Texas adults will be eligible for vaccination beginning Monday.
Rohr-Allegrini explained that vaccines will need to be brought into communities such as those served by the churches to help the state reach herd immunity.
Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church pastor Lester J. Gillespie Sr. said his church was the first Eastside parish to host a pop-up clinic. Gillespie said he helped organize it along with Jones after visiting his own physician, Dr. Daniel Kellum of Schertz, and was able to secure 110 doses for his parishioners.
A major barrier in getting more Black residents vaccinated has been fear and distrust, Gillespie said.
“Our community has been hesitant about the vaccines because they came out during the previous [presidential] administration,” he said. “It’s a trust factor first.”
Past instances of racially driven medical abuse have made Black people in general less likely to say they will get the COVID-19 vaccine. Despite being four times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than white people, and to be twice as likely to die from it, Black Americans are less likely to try to get the vaccine, surveys have shown.
Because of this distrust, Kellum said he understands how important it is to meet underserved communities where they feel safest. Kellum’s team administered second doses of the Moderna vaccine to 110 Greater Love parishioners on Friday.
“People of color were disproportionately … skeptical of the vaccine,” Kellum said. “My thought is, ‘We’ll get into the places that they feel the most comfortable – the churches.'”
Gillespie said he hopes to see more Black San Antonians trying to get the vaccine, and he and other Eastside pastors hope to help make it possible for them to get it. Because most of his congregation will now be vaccinated, Greater Love plans to resume in-person services beginning Sunday, Gillespie said.
“If they don’t want to get it, I won’t judge them,” Gillespie said. “But I would encourage people to get it if they can. A stick in the arm and a little fatigue is a lot better than the ventilator.”