Reposted with permission from Christina T Henry.

Marvin Williams Recreation Center.

The Marvin Williams Recreation Center in Bremerton, Washington, will soon become a COVID-19 vaccination site tailored to address concerns within the African American community about the vaccine’s safety, Dr. Lillian Robertson, the center’s executive director, announced Saturday, March 20, at an online forum hosted by Professional Leaders of Color — Kitsap.

The site will be open to all individuals eligible to receive the vaccine with the goal of prioritizing those in marginalized groups, including Black and Latino people and others who face barriers to receiving the shot.

The center’s vaccine site will operate in partnership with Kitsap Public Health District and other organizations. Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler pledged the city’s support for the effort.

The center on April 10 will hold a “soft opening” for dissemination of information about the vaccine and distribution of shots to people who have pre-registered, Robertson said. May 1 is slated as “Super Saturday,” a large vaccination event and health fair where people who are unsure about whether to get the shot can have their questions answered and access other health information.

Robertson said organizers have been working on a possible endorsement from Marvin Williams, the Bremerton-born NBA star after whom the center is named. Williams retired from professional basketball in September, 2020 and lives in the Charlotte, North Carolina area, according to the Kitsap Sun.

“COVID has impacted all races, all faces and in all spaces,” Robertson said. As an obstetrician, she has seen patients with the disease concerned for the health of their unborn child. Students learning from home, business owners, the elderly, everyone’s been affected in some way.

Vaccination, along with maintaining precautions, offers a way out of the pandemic, she said. At least 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve “herd Immunity,” according to the CDC.

COVID-19 has taken an especially heavy toll on people of color, who have had higher infection rates than the general population and who are more likely to be hospitalized or die, Robertson said.

African Americans have higher rates of underlying conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, inflammatory conditions that can cause more severe symptoms from a COVID-19 infection.

Intergenerational households are more common among people of color, meaning older at-risk family members are more likely to be exposed. Where people work and live also affect infection rates and outcomes, Robertson said.

Making the vaccine readily available to communities of color should be a priority, Robertson said. And yet one of the biggest barriers to getting people vaccinated is mistrust among African Americans of the healthcare system.

Mistrust of healthcare system a barrier

That mistrust is justified, Robertson said, given past abuses such as the infamous Tuskegee Study from the early 20th Century in which Black male subjects were left untreated for syphilis without their having given informed consent and even after penicillin became available to treat the disease.

Robertson also cited the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who in the 1950s was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Cells from Lacks’ tumor were harvested without her permission or knowledge and, because they continued to reproduce in the lab, were used in research decades beyond her death. Her family only became aware in the mid-1970s of how Lacks’ cells had been used to advance treatments for a host of diseases without their permission or control.

Robertson also recalled the tainted career of James Marion Sims, a 19th Century physician credited as “the father of modern gynecology.” Sims performed experimental gynecological surgery on enslaved women to perfect the technique of repairing vesicovaginal fistula, a condition resulting from complications of childbirth. He performed the surgery, however, without giving the women anesthesia.

“All of this causes us to believe that this (COVID) vaccine is not for us. Is it in my best interest? Can I trust the situation?” Robertson said. “So, when we roll up our arms to get the vaccine, we bring all that to the table.”

Vaccine safety addressed

Robertson said local efforts to get the vaccine to people of color need to come from a place of “cultural humility” that acknowledges the history of medical racism, the wrongs, the fears, the pain.

“We have reason to distrust. We have reason as people of color to be concerned about where we are with the medical community in dealing with this pandemic,” Robertson said. “The healthcare industry has earned our distrust and I believe it’s important for them to learn to earn our trust.”

Robertson testified to the safety of the vaccine, having gotten it herself. Clinical trials were accelerated but conducted within regulatory guidelines, according to her research. And, she said, people can trust the safety of the vaccine because the messenger RNA method in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines means no actual coronavirus is injected into the body, just the spike protein that gives instructions to cells to produce antibodies.

The new one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses disabled adenovirus — in no way related to the coronavirus — to deliver instructions on how to defeat the coronavirus. The disabled virus can’t replicate in your body and won’t cause a viral infection.

Health district partners with community

Yolanda Fong, KPHD’s director of community health, said her agency’s role has been to support health clinics that are state-approved “enrolled providers” for distributing the vaccine.

KPHD with the Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management operates two vaccination sites one in the former St. Michael Medical Center in Bremerton, the other, a drive-thru site recently opened on the Olympic College Poulsbo campus.

The health district has been setting aside blocks of appointments for people who lack internet or who have other barriers to getting vaccinated.

“We want to see this vaccine accessible to all,” Fong said. “And to us we want to see it as easily accessible as you can get your flu shot.”

The health district is looking at expanding vaccinations through partnerships like with the Marvin Williams Center. A South Kitsap site is in the works. And KPHD is working with community organizations that provide outreach and assistance to people facing barriers, including immigrants and people who are homeless.

“Partnership is really key and important in this because no one agency can do this work alone,” Fong said.

Vaccine eligibility expanding

People wondering if they’re eligible should check KPHD’s COVID-19 vaccination page or the Department of Health’s Phase Finder, Fong said.

Recently added to the growing list of eligible individuals are people who work in congregate settings, agriculture and food processing, grocery stores and public transit, people who are pregnant or at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19 among others. More groups, including restaurant workers, will be added March 31. All Washington adults 16 and over will be eligible on May 1, Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week.

Anyone without internet access or needing assistance setting up an appointment should call 360–728–2219 (English), 360–728–2218 (Spanish.)

Robertson has reached out through the Bremerton African American Ministerial Alliance to publicize upcoming vaccine events at the Marvin Williams Center. Her group will use social media, BKAT and word of mouth to share the latest developments.

Professional Leaders of Color — Kitsap was formed in October 2019 to develop, mentor and empower strong leaders of color and to foster equity in Kitsap County. View the full presentation here.

Reposted with permission from Christina T Henry.