Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Despite stagnant vaccination rates among African Americans, California still has one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the country. 

Caroline Savello, a leader in public health, credits that status to continued efforts to improve access to vaccination and testing. The Sacramento OBSERVER recently spoke with Savello, who serves as Chief Operating Officer of Color, a Bay Area-based company that has partnered with the State to create COVID-19 testing opportunities.

“Our entire mission and reason for being is to make sure that basic health care can be accessible to everyone, where they live, where they work, where they go to school,” said Savello, who is White.

Color started working with the State in October 2020.

“The intention was all about, ‘How do we make testing highly available, particularly in underserved and hard-to-reach communities where health care services just are difficult in general?’“ Savello said.

She acknowledges that access has been an issue for Blacks and other communities of color. Color has worked with the California Farmworkers Federation to provide access to testing for migrant workers in the eastern part of the state and they’ve worked with the California Department of Public Health’s African American Community Empowerment Council to support COVID testing across the state through faith-based and community-based organizations. 

“We’ve supported dozens of these across the state, where we work with them to basically set up testing sites on Sundays,” Savello said. “And actually, with some of them, we also support vaccination sites on other days, so that it is in a trusted location in the community where they actually access these basic health care needs for COVID.”

Local sites have included St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Oak Park and Murph Emmanuel AME in the North area. Color also worked with Life Matters, Inc. (LMI) to bring testing to local, low-income residents.

“LMI provides social services and life skill development for 3,200 tenants residing in five separate affordable housing complexes throughout North Sacramento and Foothills Farms,” shared founder and board chair Pastor Joy Johnson.

“Each of the five complexes house a high population of low income and families of color who lack transportation and are unable to travel to seek vaccination services.  Also, our service area was high on the scale for vaccine hesitancy.  To address the impacts of limited transportation and hesitancy, Color provided onsite vaccination with a mobile unit every week at two of our larger complexes for eight weeks,” Pastor Johnson said.

The partnership with Color resulted in more than 300 vaccinations being administered, she said, before the effort was completed at the end of August.

Hesitancy and mistrust still play a part in why people don’t get tested and why vaccination numbers are low. Some may see the genetic testing aspect of what Color does and wonder if there’s something amiss.  Savello assures the community that genetic testing has nothing to do with vaccinations..

“A small part of our work is hereditary genetic testing for individuals to understand if they are at a high risk for common cancers like breast cancer, so BRCA mutations is a big one,” Savello explains. “We’re a healthcare service and a HIPAA compliant entity and we only ever do the thing that we say we’re going to do for that patient. That they consent to that is absolutely core, because we know that trust, privacy, security is one of the single biggest impediments to people getting the care that they need. So when you come for a COVID test, you are only receiving that service. 

“We have completely separate systems, completely separate labs, everything that would actually make sure that none of that information could ever cross with the hereditary genetics, part of our work. And we’re very, very rigorous about that.”

Continued Outreach

With vaccination numbers still low in Sacramento County, Public Health officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye got creative and started offering to come out and set up vaccination clinics at local businesses to reach more people.

“A lot of smaller businesses are not really realizing how easy it is, frankly,” Savello shared. “They think that it’s a lot of work and effort, and it just seems unachievable, but we’ve shown that if you can do this in a church basement, you can do it at your small business site.”

Savello says she’s looking forward to more outreach to small business owners to “educate them on the possibilities.” 

Only 44 percent of Sacramento County’s African American population has been at least partially vaccinated. Savello says there has been specific discussion about how to address the issue.

“We have been working directly with the County as well as with community organizations to address exactly their needs, listening and working with these communities to figure out how and where we should deliver services and vaccines,” Savello said. “When we work with the State and the County, we’re very focused on, ‘what is a place that is super convenient for people in the community who are unvaccinated? So for instance, a transit hub, where it will be on their commute home, outside of a church parking lot, places where there is absolutely no additional time or overhead or work on their part to just sit down in the chair and get the vaccine.” 

“People aren’t even going to pharmacies to get their vaccines. We have to bring it so close that it makes it feel like it’s just so convenient that they can’t say no.”

Color, she says, spends a lot of time providing physical convenience and technology convenience. 

“Small businesses can be a really important point for that. You come to work. You swab yourself and you drop it off. Very, very easy. You don’t have to go out of your way,” said Savello, urging more people to find out how they can be part of the solution.

“The State actually has a really simple process for getting your organization setup. They’ve done a lot of outreach and we have as well, but I know that there’s places that we’re not reaching.”