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To Close The COVID-19 Vaccine Race Gap, Utah Turns To Community Organizations

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Renee Bright
Community organizations are running pop-up, walk-in vaccine clinics aimed at removing barriers that have kept some people from getting their doses. They hope people will feel more comfortable with Spanish-speaking providers at places they are familiar with.

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On a Saturday afternoon in mid-April, volunteers and community health workers welcomed people into the Second Baptist Church in Ogden. On Sundays, that’s the ushers’ job, but that day the church had been transformed into a pop-up vaccine clinic. It was aimed at people of color, but anyone was welcome.

“You don't have to have insurance to come,” said 21-year-old Perla Robles, who was there getting her first shot. “They didn't ask you for much. Just your name and your date of birth. … You know, they're not here to scare you. They’re here to help you.”

The clinic at Second Baptist Church is part of Utah’s larger effort to close a racial gap in its vaccination campaign. White people are nearly twice as likely as Black and Latinx Utahns to have gotten the COVID-19 vaccines, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Robles said she put off getting it for a few weeks because she was worried it might not be safe. But she did some more research and ultimately decided getting it was the right thing to do for herself and her community — in large part because she was afraid of what might happen if she got COVID-19.

“I was just scared,” she said. “If I got the vaccine and I did end up getting COVID, it wouldn’t hit me as hard. Since I'm asthmatic, it's kind of a preventative step.”

A Matter Of Access

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Sonja Hutson
The state health department partnered with several community organizations to host a pop-up vaccine clinic at the Second Baptist Church in Ogden.

Hesitancy among people like Robles doesn’t fully explain the racial disparity in Utah and across the country. Similar percentages of White, Black and Hispanic Americans say they’ve either gotten vaccinated or want to do so as soon as possible, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. That means Black and Hispanic people want the vaccine about as much as white people do, they just haven't been able to get it.

Jeannette Villalta, a community health worker, or promotora, for Alliance Community Services in Murray said it comes down to access.

“One of the big barriers that I see is the registration and how they find an appointment online,” Villalta said.

Clinics like the one at Second Baptist Church are designed to eliminate the registration obstacle and several others. To help people like Robles feel more comfortable, they’re staffed with Black and Latinx people — like Villalta — who already work with their communities. Villalta said the benefit is even greater for undocumented people.

“That's a big fear because everything is on the line when you don't have documentation or a status,” she said. “People are afraid that their names and addresses [are] going to be shared and that can put them on the spot. But thanks to this organization that people trust — that's why they come. Otherwise, they are not going to do it.”

It’s not just this clinic that won’t share a person’s information — anywhere that distributes the COVID-19 vaccine is legally required to keep that information private, and getting a vaccine won’t affect your immigration status.

Statewide Equity Plan

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Sonja Hutson
Perla Robles (left) got her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up clinic in Ogden. She brought her mother, Maria Robles (right), with her.

Walk-in clinics run by community organizations are part of the state’s equity plan.

Gov. Spencer Cox said so far it looks like that plan is working.

Since opening the vaccine up to all adults at the end of March, the number of white Utahns with at least one dose of the vaccine has gone up 47%. The number of Latinx Utahns who have gotten one has more than doubled, and Black Utahns had an 90% increase.

Cox said opening up vaccines to all adults earlier than expected was due to a slowing demand from people who were already eligible, but it was also an effort to close the racial gap.

“That allows us and our partners to go in and just vaccinate everyone in those communities without having to worry about age or underlying health conditions [and] start to close that gap,” he said.

That’s what made this vaccination site in Ogden possible, said Betty Sawyer with the Project Success Coalition, a non-profit education outreach group. They helped organize the pop-up clinic.

Sawyer said vaccine access is an important part of closing the racial gap but from her perspective, hesitancy is an issue too. She said that’s rooted in the country’s history of medical mistreatment of Black people.

“They go back to studies around women in their childbearing years and things of that nature that were done with no anesthetic,” she said. “And the list gets longer and longer. We feel that we will be the guinea pig, we’ll be the test cases.”

Sawyer said the best way to address those fears is for trusted community members to share information about how COVID-19 vaccines were developed and tested.

Robles said she wishes more people in her community would take advantage of easy access clinics like this, especially after watching Latinx Utahns suffer disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infections and death.

“There are a lot of Hispanic people, older people like — I have a couple of aunts and uncles— that want to get it,” she said. “They just don't know where to get it, how to get it.”

Robles said she’s looking forward to seeing more opportunities like this one.

Since the state recently announced it would provide a mobile vaccination clinic for free to any business or organization that wants to run one, her wishes could soon become a reality.

Upcoming Community Vaccine Clinics:

May 22, 3 p.m. — 7 p.m. MDT: Hosted by Centro Civico Mexicano at 155 South 600 West, Salt Lake City, UT 84101. For appointments, call 801-883-9792 or email

Organizations or businesses that want to host a free mobile vaccination clinic can sign up on the state’s coronavirus website.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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