While running a vaccination clinic in Del Paso Heights, Dr. Gina Warren was approached by a man who didn’t have an appointment. He told her that nine members of his family died of COVID-19. She got him in and vaccinated.
A younger man arrived, saying his father had died of the virus the night before. He too was able to get the shot.
“We respect the tier, but we also have to protect the needs of the community,” said Dr. Kawanaa Carter.
Dr. Carter has joined forces with Dr. Warren and Marilyn Woods, co-founders of the Neighborhood Wellness Foundation, to open a vaccination site in Del Paso Heights, with the express purpose of reaching out to vulnerable members of the community.
“A 40-year old Black man with diabetes, unemployed, is going to die before a 65-year-old educated White man who is employed,” Dr. Carter said. “When you talk about equity you have to consider things like that. So limiting vaccines in Del Paso Heights just on the tier alone is not equitable in my opinion.”
Added Dr. Warren: “We know who’s dying. One of my staff members almost died. She and I grew up together. This is real.”
Numbers have increased at the clinic since it began in the Neighborhood Wellness Foundation’s Clay Street parking lot last month. Dr. Warren said the clinic administered all 60 of its vaccines the first day and 126 by the third day, an increase Dr. Carter credits to outreach.
“After two days of being in the community, we were inundated with walk ups,” Dr. Carter said. Now the clinic is held at nearby Grant High School to accommodate the volume of participants.
Dr. Carter says there are more than 4,000 people on a waiting list to get the vaccine. They’ve administered more than 25,000 shots already.
Dr. Warren introduced Dr. Carter to her neighborhood “soldiers.” They mobilized to visit senior living facilities and churches, passing out information and answering questions.
The team includes several African American female physicians, including Dr. Carter and Dr. Warren, who previously worked at UCSF and organized African American health fairs together.
“We literally work on this project 16 to 18 hours a day,” Dr. Carter said.
“We started in a community where there’s a lack of trust of government involvement in health care, there’s lack of trust for the vaccine in general. There’s a lot of misinformation, misconceptions and there’s a lack of information about COVID and the virus in this community altogether,” she added.
For her, the critical mission is to care for the poor. Dr. Carter pointed out that the clinic is targeted at more than just African Americans, adding that Hispanics and Asian Pacific Islanders suffer from disproportionately high levels of poverty, lack of education, and preexisting conditions that increase susceptibility to severe illness and death from COVID-19. Dr. Carter said it’s vital that they be “very conscientious” about what equitable distribution means.
“A lot of it does have to do with the lack of understanding. We’re dealing with a population with low levels of education, we’re dealing with people who have a lack of access to just primary health care. We have to break down all of those barriers,” Dr. Carter said.
In addition to vaccinating residents, the Del Paso Heights clinic also serves Twin Rivers Unified School District teachers. They’ll be instructing area students who are expected to return to in-person instruction April 6.
Despite increasing numbers, county health officials recently threatened to shut down the Del Paso Heights Clinic due to a “miscommunication” with data reporting. The issue was resolved, but county officials stopped providing them first doses.
“I’m confident that the county will give us doses because they saw our operation and I think they liked it a lot,” Dr. Carter said.
The physicians remain focused on outreach. Being known in the community is working to their advantage, Dr. Warren said.
“When people trust you, and they know that you are there to do right by them … they will come,” Dr. Warren said. “So when they say Black people don’t come, that ain’t true.”
“We don’t want to keep perpetuating that myth,” Dr. Warren continued. “Yes, Black folks are leery and they should be because history has tainted the health care system by their horrible practices, but we’re now in a position to change that and we have to do that because our lives are dependent on it.”
Dr. Carter isn’t from Del Paso Heights, but says she doesn’t need to be to care what happens to those who call it home.
“It’s important to me because this type of community, with this demographic profile, has the highest morbidity and mortality rates compared to more affluent communities,” she said. “So it’s important to me to stop people from dying. It’s just that simple.”