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Mass vaccination clinic in rural Charleston a 'sigh of relief' for SC's Black residents

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WADMALAW ISLAND — Healthcare workers eagerly took their stations as hundreds of cars idled outside of the St. James Bethel AME Church on March 21. Volunteers stood ready to direct traffic for a much-needed mass COVID-19 vaccination event tailored to one of Charleston County's more rural communities.

The majority of the residents on Wadmalaw Island, a small community of about 3,000 people near Johns Island, are Black, according to census data. So, with 500 doses of the Moderna vaccine in hand, Dr. Youlando Gibbs said she saw the vaccination event as crucial. 

Gibbs, CEO and founder of the Palmetto Palace, a nonprofit organization which takes a health clinic that's based out of a bus to underserved communities, said much good can be done with mass vaccination events outside of major cities like Charleston, Columbia and Mount Pleasant.

"The disparities that exist make it essential for us to deliberately and purposely partner with these churches in rural areas to go out and find people where they are," Gibbs said, who worked with Roper St. Francis to distribute the vaccines.

The vaccination event brings a much-needed shot of hope to Wadmalaw Island residents, especially as the coronavirus continues to disproportionately take its toll on minority populations. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that African Americans are four times more likely to be hospitalized and nearly three times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to White patients. 

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Rev. Williams Jones directs traffic during the Palmetto Palace mobile health unit vaccination event at the New Saint James-Bethel AME Church on Sunday, March 21, 2021 on Wadmalaw Island. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Health officials and doctors are still trying to overcome decades worth of mistrust that has formed between some Black Americans and public health agencies following historic examples of mistreatments and abuse. 

Jennifer Sterret, a clinical pharmacist with Roper St. Francis who has been assisting with vaccination efforts, said it's important to recognize the past and try to build a better future by providing access to care and information in rural parts of the state. 

"They have reason to be skeptical with that long history," Sterret said. "It means a lot for us to build trust with the African American community." 

In December, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control released a formal vaccine plan states they want to “engage critical, vulnerable and potentially underserved populations to achieve high vaccine acceptance through a strategic communications campaign delivered by trusted influencers.”

This involved promoting online videos featuring Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, Columbia Mayor Stephen K. Benjamin and South Carolina music artist Darius Rucker encouraging people to adhere to safety guidelines. 

But it also meant partnering with community leaders, like Dr. Gibbs, and churches, like St. St. James Bethel AME, to reach South Carolina's Black residents. 

Rev. William R. Jones, the pastor at St. James, said he encouraged his parishioners to come to the event and got the vaccine himself. 

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"I've already got both of my shots as an example to my parishioners," Jones said. "Even though there are some people are reluctant, I think some of that feeling is disappearing." 

Vaccines were prioritized for those with prior appointments. But then the clinic was opened to residents who lived in Wadmalaw or to anyone who made it in line. Rows of cars stretched down Rosebank Road as South Carolinians waited to get their dose. 

Marsha McCoy, a kindergarten teacher from West Ashley, said she was excited for her second dose so she could "go dancing and hear live music."

Others like Emily Campbell, a 73-year-old Wadmalaw Island resident, said she was looking forward to Sunday dinners and a Fourth of July celebration with her family. But she was also anxious and hopes to ease back into life. 

"I had been worrying about getting it for three months, but it didn't even hurt," she said. "I can't wait for the second one. I'm still going to be leery though, because I want to stay safe." 

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Leroy McGill puts on his shirt after getting his vaccine by Lidie Collier, RN, during the Palmetto Palace mobile health unit vaccination event at the New Saint James-Bethel AME Church on Sunday, March 21, 2021 on Wadmalaw Island. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Leroy McGill, a Wadmalaw native who lives on Johns Island now, said getting the first shot was a "sigh of relief." 

Dr. Gibbs said she was able to breathe a sigh of relief, too, when the vaccines they brought that day were all out.

However, the Department of Health and Environmental Control has provided Palmetto Palace with 2,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine and 100 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to use for a variety of community events.

So, for Dr. Gibbs, the work is far from over. 

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

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