Engaging faith communities to reduce vaccination disparities

In partnership with Mercy Philadelphia and community faith leaders, Penn Medicine held a vaccine clinic at the Church of Christian Compassion that reached 500 people in West Philadelphia. At least two more such events are planned.

Masked person holds up photo border that reads "I got the COVID-19 vaccine!"
The event was the result of a close partnership among Penn Medicine, Mercy Philadelphia, and faith leaders from West and Southwest Philadelphia.

At the Church of Christian Compassion on Cedar Street, volunteers from Penn Medicine, Mercy Philadelphia Hospital, and the church began arriving in the chilly dark of 6 a.m. Saturday. Clad in black T-shirts printed with “Mercy & Penn Medicine & The Community #VaccineCollaborative,” they set up tables and chairs in the church’s lobby and classrooms, assembled supplies and paperwork, and hung dark coverings over the windows to lend privacy to those inside. Converting the church into a makeshift medical clinic, the volunteers were well-prepared for a long productive day. By a bit after 3 p.m., 500 parishioners of West and Southwest Philadelphia church congregations had been vaccinated against COVID-19.

The event, co-organized by Penn’s Health System, Mercy Catholic Medical Center-Mercy Philadelphia Campus, and city faith leaders, emerged from the understanding that people of color have been hardest hit by the pandemic and are also more likely to be uncertain about becoming vaccinated. 

“We hope to accomplish two things,” says P.J. Brennan, chief medical officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, who was on site helping oversee the event. “One is to deliver the vaccine to the community and narrow the disparity gap in who is getting vaccinated. We also want to build trust and break down some of the hesitation that exists around these vaccines.”

After the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were authorized in December, Brennan and Phil Okala, chief operating officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, discussed how they could address the racial disparities at play in the pandemic and specifically those related to vaccine distribution.

“We figured one way to go about this was to engage the faith leaders, the pastors of West Philadelphia,” says Okala, who was also there Saturday. “To engage them as influencers, helping assure their congregants that the vaccine is safe, seemed like a wonderful idea all around.”

patient receives a vaccine from a medical professional as both wear masks
The mood was upbeat at the church as volunteers efficiently delivered vaccines to 500 members of Philadelphia faith communities.

Okala contacted the Rev. William Shaw, pastor of West Philadelphia’s White Rock Baptist Church and a member of the Penn Medicine Board, who invited more than 20 additional pastors to participate in a conversation about making a vaccine event a reality. 

“The pastors were from across the spectrum,” Okala says. “Some were already convinced they would take the vaccine; others were not. But we all agreed it was a good idea to host a vaccine clinic in West Philadelphia, so people could come get the vaccine in a place they were comfortable.”

The pastors participated in meetings about the COVID-19 vaccine, including a Zoom call with Penn Medicine emergency medicine physician Eugenia South, who shared her personal journey from vaccine hesitancy to receiving the vaccine and who answered questions. The faith leaders then went on to share information about the planned clinic with their communities through a variety of means, including online signups, texts, phone calls, and mentions from the pulpit during Sunday services. 

“We made sure they had a high-tech and a no-tech approach for those who are not as tech-savvy,” Okala says. “The digital divide is real.”

Mercy Philadelphia, a hospital with deep roots in in the West Philadelphia community, was a key partner in planning and executing the vaccine clinic. Mercy, Penn, and the Church of Christian Compassion put out a call for volunteers before the event, the slots filling in minutes. The event, vaccinating those in the 1b category of eligibility according to the City of Philadelphia’s designation, easily reached capacity. At least two other events are planned, which will broaden the scope of outreach to include West Philadelphia’s Muslim community.

“We are planning to engage imams and offer the next events at different locations to more broadly reach out to the area’s faith community,” says Brennan.

medical professional gives informational materials to a patient
Those who got the first shot were provided with informational materials about the vaccines. They'll return in a month for their second dose.

Brennan and Okala say they hope to learn from Saturday’s event how to guide their planning of future clinics and, more generally, to build trust among Philadelphia’s Black and brown communities.

“I think we are making progress, but progress is gradual,” Okala says. “We are not going to erase 400 years of ill in one go. We have to be steadfast.”

Signs of progress were evident in the upbeat atmosphere on Saturday.

“We have turned our church into a hospital today,” said Pastor W. L. Herndon of the Church of Christian Compassion on a Facebook Live broadcast during the clinic. “There are some people who wouldn’t go to a place other than a place that they trust,” he said, recounting a conversation he had with a 78-year-old woman who had gotten vaccinated who hadn’t hugged or touched her children in nearly a year due to the pandemic. “That’s why this matters.”

It was a sentiment echoed by a couple of just-vaccinated parishioners overheard leaving the clinic: “Today is a good day.”

P.J. Brennan is chief medical officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Phil Okala is chief operating officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Frank Otto contributed reporting. Photos by Dan Burke.

Person rolls up sleeve to receive a vaccination
The Rev. William Shaw, pastor of White Rock Baptist Church and a member of the Penn Medicine Board, was among those who received a vaccine at the Church of Christian Compassion in February. (Image: Dan Burke)