St. Louis's Vaccination Strategy Goes Small

Jun 28, 2021 at 6:34 am
St. Louis  health director Dr. Fredrick Echols was on-hand to congratulate vaccine-getters on March 26. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
St. Louis health director Dr. Fredrick Echols was on-hand to congratulate vaccine-getters on March 26.

Dr. Frederick Echols, director of health for the city of St. Louis, wants to focus on building trust with the community. As the struggle to get as many people as possible vaccinated against COVID-19 continues, he and the city have shifted away from the bigger, mass vaccination clinics in an effort to focus on smaller clinics backed by organizations trusted in the surrounding neighborhoods.

"Smaller community-based clinics give us an opportunity to really work more closely with individuals in the community,” Echols says. “It also gives us an opportunity to have more intimate conversations with individuals regarding vaccine hesitancy and issues related to vaccine access.”

Minority communities are being affected disproportionately by COVID-19, according to both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and St. Louis city data. Flint Fowler, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis (2901 North Grand Boulevard), says that’s one of the reasons these clinics are important. He explains that based on the science and the information available, the vaccine is the best way to eliminate or reduce the impact the virus has.

Over this past weekend, the Boys & Girls Clubs held its own clinic in partnership with the City of St. Louis Department of Health. Fowler said last week he was looking forward to the clinic, noting that the partnership between the club and the city would allow residents greater access to the vaccine.

The organization has been part of the community for over 50 years, serving many local children. Fowler calls the access to care that the members need "imperative" and says such clinics will help parents who can't work from home and their kids return to work and school safely.

“There’s a level of trust the community has for what the Boys & Girls Club represents, so we gladly open our doors for better opportunities and information for the residents,” Fowler says.

He and Echols agree that giving residents the information about the COVID-19 vaccine is essential. Fowler urges the community to use its resources when it comes to the department of health.

In order for citizens to make the most informed decision possible, Echols says the city has also started handing attendees of the clinics information about the vaccine before they get the shot, giving them an opportunity to ask questions. Fowler also encourages people to remember the department of health is funded by public dollars, meaning they are within their rights to ask questions of the department.

“I think it's important for the community to know that if they have questions or concerns, they should reach out. I think it becomes a challenge if we don't seek information out for ourselves, or if we are inactive due to history or past practices,” Fowler says. “In today's economy or society, it pays for us to do our own research and get information firsthand and make educated decisions. It obviously impacts your overall health and well-being of the community and the region, as well. The virus knows no boundaries.”

Echols is making sure the department of health stays mindful when it comes to the history Fowler mentions. There are a lot of complexities, he explains. Echols also says the city is making sure to use a data-based approach to focus on the ZIP codes that are most critical. Looking back on the history of north St. Louis — an area the city is concerned about due to low vaccination rates — and of health-care delivery to vulnerable populations, Echols wants to make sure the approaches at the clinics are culturally sensitive and appropriate. With a focus on northern St. Louis, where at least 75 percent residents are unvaccinated in ZIP codes such as 63106 and 63102, according to Echols, building trust is of the utmost importance.

“We’re very sensitive and aware of how we engage individuals in those communities, because we know there’s still a lack of trust that remains,” Echols says. “So, we don't want to do any additional damage to those communities.”

Fowler knows the Boys & Girls Club is a “representative of good,” and with much of his staff having received the COVID-19 vaccine, he says they are more than willing to share their stories with those who have questions about the shots.

And drawing on such conversations at the clinics and other events, Echols and his team are working to dispel misinformation and myths about the COVID-19 vaccines. The discussions have helped fuel a YouTube video series called “Ask Dr. Echols,” which the city began back in August 2020.

Echols also points to the $6.75 million of an $80 million direct relief fund proposal by Mayor Tishaura Jones as a way to help reach more of the community. The money will be invested in more mobile vaccination clinics, as well as other public health needs.

Rev. Dr. Sheila Bouie-Sledge says her church, North Park United Methodist Church (1525 Orchid Avenue, St. Louis), will be hosting a clinic again on July 22. Bouie-Sledge called the clinics a blessing.

"I don't know what schedule parents are on, and going downtown [for the bigger clinics] sometimes is difficult, they're tired," Bouie-Sledge says. "So, for the clinic to open and say, 'We're here, we're going to help you out by keeping it close to the people who need it most,' it's a blessing."

For Echols, these clinics are just the beginning for a foundation of trust he seeks to build. Beyond COVID-19, he wants to be a resource for the community in health issues that have not disappeared: heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes are just a few illnesses that are still prevalent. Remembering the impact of COVID-19 on the community will be essential moving forward, Echols says. If the city forgot about the health problems that predate the pandemic, or were made worse, its mission would not be as effective, he adds.

“Ultimately, our goal is to continue to build trust with the community, again being mindful of the history of health service delivery for our vulnerable population, as well as the history of systemic racism,” Echols says. “Our mission isn’t solely tied to COVID-19, our mission is tied to improving community health, including an environment where every individual in the city of St. Louis has an opportunity to achieve optimal health, far beyond COVID-19.”

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