by Jenna Portnoy for The Washington Post

February 10, 2021

Pastor Joseph Daniels folded his 6-foot-3-inch frame into the mobile coronavirus vaccine clinic outside Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Southeast Washington on Wednesday and joked that he was no fan of needles.

Before he knew it, a nurse wearing a face shield, a mask and gloves was applying a bandage to his upper arm.

“Oh, okay,” he said. “That was easy.”

Daniels was one of a handful of pastors, along with their spouses, who received a vaccination Wednesday morning as part of the city’s pilot program staging clinics at churches, part of an effort to combat vaccine hesitancy and improve access to the shots in hard-hit neighborhoods where vaccination rates are low.

“I’m grateful to be in a position to be a faith leader to send a very important and critical message to the faith community, particularly the Black faith community,” said Daniels, lead pastor at Emory Fellowship United Methodist Church in D.C.’s Brightwood neighborhood. “We need to educate ourselves about the vaccine and then go get it.”

Similar initiatives are underway in other parts of the greater Washington region disproportionately affected by the virus, including Wards 5, 7 and 8 in the District and Prince George’s County. People are also being vaccinated where they worship in North Carolina, Connecticut and Michigan.

Holding clinics on church grounds can make getting the vaccine easier for people who do not have the ability to drive to a mass vaccination clinic or who have trouble getting online to check and recheck websites, hoping for an appointment.

And seeing pastors getting vaccinated can help ease people’s concerns about getting vaccinated, said Ankoor Shah, D.C.’s vaccine director.

“We know the faith community has the ear of their people and are a trusted voice,” Shah said. “For people who might be a little hesitant, to see their pastor get vaccinated builds that trust immediately.”

The D.C. health department, in partnership with the nonprofit health-care service provider St. Mary’s Center and the mobile health-care provider FiveMedicine, will vaccinate 200 people over two days, Thursday and Saturday, at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, which invited members and people from the surrounding community to get the shots at the clinics.

There are plans to add clinics at churches in Wards 5, 7 and 8, Shah said.

The District sets aside 30 percent of its doses for residents who register through a Web portal, with the remainder allocated through special programs such as the church vaccine clinics, focusing on those in priority populations who lack a regular health-care provider, a computer to register or the transportation needed to access a vaccine, Shah said.

Kendrick Curry, senior pastor at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, said the vaccine clinic was part of the church’s efforts to help the surrounding community through the pandemic. In addition to the vaccine clinic, his church hosts coronavirus testing and a food pantry.

“I believe this is the call of the church,” he said. “It’s not just to be a place where we gather for worship. It’s a place where we witness the change in people’s lives.”

Daniels, whose wife, Marilyn, also got vaccinated Wednesday, said the coronavirus and its consequences are frequently part of his virtual sermons.

When it was his turn for a shot, Daniels walked up to a registration tent where a technician checked his identification, took his temperature — a cool 97.2 — and asked some basic questions about his health.

Next he went to a mobile unit, where a nurse in a blue coat swabbed his arm with alcohol, told him to “put your mind in a nice place,” and administered a swift jab of the needle. After the shot, he caught up with colleagues whom he had not seen in person since the spring, saying goodbye with elbow bumps.

Deneen Richmond, president of the Luminis Health Doctors Community Medical Center, said her system is hosting vaccine clinics four times a week at Reid Temple AME Church in Glenn Dale, Md., for hundreds of Prince George’s County residents 75 and older, starting this week with the vaccination of 40 pastors and seniors.

She said vaccine hesitancy is based on generations of systematic exploitation of the Black community through slavery; the Tuskegee experiment, in which Black men were denied treatment for syphilis; and institutional racism that continues to fuel health disparities.

“But we need people to understand this vaccine is different,” she said. “We know that Black and Brown people have been disproportionately impacted [by the coronavirus]. So, of everyone who needs the vaccine, we need to line up.”

Mark E. Whitlock Jr., senior pastor at Reid Temple AME, called the vaccine clinics “a gift from God.”

“The minute we started talking about this clinic, lights in eyes, joy in voices, people were just literally overwhelmed with great joy,” he said. “The church, which offers salvation for the soul, is also offering protection and healing for the physical body.”

Whitlock knows firsthand how devastating the virus can be — his 90-year-old mother died in his arms after contracting the virus, and every day since March his pastoral team has prayed for someone suffering from covid-19 in the congregation or the wider community.

“We’re literally putting cellphones to people’s ears, and once they go on the ventilator, there is desperation that takes place,” he said. “It’s something that unless you’ve gone through it — it’s not an intellectual or cognitive exercise — this really is about saving lives.”

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