TUPELO • Two days before her 45th birthday, Tabitha McRunnels finally received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccination.

“I made it,” McRunnels said.

It was a chilly, wet day when the Plantersville native arrived at her location near the Mall at Barnes Crossing, the Mississippi State Department of Health’s Lee County drive-thru site. After the nearly two weeks it took to get the appointment, McRunnels arrived 14 minutes early to her 3:20 p.m. appointment Thursday.

After checking in with the Mississippi National Guard, the process moved quickly. She chose her left arm for the shot. After filling out paperwork and receiving a vaccination card, she was given the Pfizer vaccine.

“That’s it?” McRunnels said once the vaccination was completed.

McRunnels now joins the 66,216 Black Mississippians who have received a COVID-19 vaccine as of Feb. 12.

Despite representing 38% of the population, only 20% of the state’s 414,181 administered doses of COVID-19 vaccine have gone to African Americans, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health. That trend includes other minority groups: Hispanic people are only 1% of total vaccinations, but 3% of the state population; and American Indian or Alaskan Native (AIAN) people are only 377 of total vaccinations, despite being 0.6% of the state population and 1.6% of COVID-19 deaths as of Feb. 8.

Vaccination efforts

These lagging numbers for African American, Hispanic, and Native American populations point to an ongoing need to apply an equity lens to the vaccination efforts.

More Black people are being vaccinated now than when vaccinations first started, up from a low of 13%. Improving those numbers is something the health department’s “been paying attention to from the very beginning,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said during a Friday virtual panel hosted by Tougaloo College.

MSDH’s Health Equity Division is leading the effort to maintain ongoing partnerships to improve access. Having multiple partnerships with Black ministers, the City of Jackson, the Community Health Center Association of Mississippi and its members helps ensure the MSDH has Black and brown voices, Dobbs said.

Dobbs claimed community health centers and clinics “have been a remarkable mechanism for us to reach underserved communities.” More than 70% of vaccinated people at those locations are Black, he said.

“That’s an easy place to invest our resources, so that’s something we’ll continue to augment, and then also, we want to do targeted outreach with local communities, churches, municipalities, at-risk populations,” Dobbs said.

MSDH has seen success on a local level: Partners like St. Dominic’s in Jackson have found ways to bring vaccines to Black churches and the homeless, and the Hattiesburg Clinic brought vaccines into the community where people live.

“We’re making progress and we’re on the right track,” Dobbs said.

Barriers persist

Trust and access remain a challenge. In a vaccine hesitancy survey created by the MSDH, Black respondents showed less trust versus other respondents and were more likely to be influenced to take the COVID-19 vaccine by church leaders.

For some, the lack of trust is rooted in history, driven by past events like the Tuskegee experiments, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, during the panel.

“What I feel strongly about is that you need to respect that distrust and respect that skepticism because historically, if you look at how the federal government and medical matters have over decades treated African Americans, the history is not a good history … the memory of that history is still there,” Fauci said. “What you can ensure African Americans is that since that time, there have been ethical safeguards put in place that would make it totally impossible for that ever to happen again.”

Black physicians like Dr. Myrna Alexander-Nickens, cardiologist at The University of Mississippi Medical Center, said many initial problems stemmed more from accessibility rather than personal choice. As efforts improve, she’s encouraging even small efforts, such as talking to her own church about starting a call center to help church members who can’t sign up for a vaccine online.

“I think if we took that in the smaller communities, we could get shots in arms, so to speak,” Alexander-Nickens said during the panel.

‘There are two funerals on my birthday’

McRunnels saw firsthand the barriers with signing up for an appointment. She helped a lot of people over the age of 65 sign up for appointments, taking their information so that as appointments became available, she could sign them up en masse. She described wait times of two hours over the phone, and online sign-ups moved too fast for some older people she assisted. It involved a lot of checking all the time.

Getting the shot is easy, she said. Finding a dosage is not.

“I have been committed to helping other people sign up because it’s not a very easy process,” McRunnels said. “I just thought if I could help in any way, that would be an area where I could help.”

For McRunnels, the decision to get vaccinated was easy. Her aunts, uncles, and grandmother have been vaccinated already. When someone asked her to explain her reason, she pointed to a simple example: the time her eldest daughter caught chickenpox in the fourth grade.

Although her eldest daughter hadn’t been vaccinated, her youngest had been. She remembered how her youngest never got chickenpox, despite being in close contact with her sick sister.

“At that point, I said, ‘Now vaccines work.’ I believe in it, they work. God has given those people the ability to create that,” McRunnels said.

It also went deeper than just the science. McRunnels personally knows eight people who have died because of COVID-19. That’s played an enormous role in her decision to be vaccinated. Now that she is, McRunnels looks forward to seeing COVID-19 end.

“There are two funerals on my birthday of people that I know. I know their families, we’re all from the same community. It’s just been a burden,” she said. “I’ve signed up my entire family to be vaccinated, so when it was my turn and I was able to be vaccinated, I started then trying to find me an appointment.”

danny.mcarthur@journalinc.com

Twitter: @Danny_McArthur_

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