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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Oscar Gaytan, M.A., gives a vaccination card to Emily Ramos in the drive-thru area at Clinica Medicos on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.

The Hamilton County Health Department is turning to many of the partnerships that were forged early in the pandemic in an effort to bring COVID-19 vaccines to hard-hit, underserved communities.

Clinica Medicos, which joined forces with the county in April to ramp up COVID-19 testing for residents who traditionally face barriers to health care services, is now the first community provider to offer coronavirus vaccinations to eligible front-line health care workers, first responders and Hamilton County residents age 75 and up.

Clinica Medicos received 200 doses of Moderna vaccine and began piloting its rollout this week. The clinic will host a drive-thru vaccination event this Sunday by appointment only for 100 eligible people free of charge and regardless of whether they're a Clinica Medicos patient.

"We feel equipped to lead this charge, especially within minority communities and our patients who we've cared for over the past six years," said Dr. Kelly Arnold, founder and medical director at Clinica Medicos, which has a patient mix that's over 90% Latino and roughly 50% uninsured.

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Vaccinating underserved communities

Hispanic residents in the United States are 4.1 times more likely to be hospitalized due to the coronavirus than white residents, while Black people are 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized than white people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Hamilton County, Black residents make up about 19% of the population and account for 27% of the county's COVID-19 deaths, whereas Hispanic residents represent 6% of the population and 10% of confirmed cases.

These same groups also face more obstacles to medical care, such as language barriers and lack of transportation or health insurance. They are often more hesitant to seek treatment due to historical distrust in the health care system — meaning the populations that need COVID-19 vaccines the most are also the hardest to reach.

Until recently, it's been unclear how well the county's focus on vaccine equity is being implemented. Last week, the county began publishing demographic data on who had received doses so far. That information was supposed to be updated again Wednesday but was delayed due to "an issue with pulling today's vaccine data," according to the health department's website.

As of last week, white residents in Hamilton County were being vaccinated at higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups. Becky Barnes, health department administrator, said, "it is too early to see any significant trends that show if a population is missing from the data," since the sample size is limited and data collection has just begun.

To overcome vaccine hesitancy, Arnold said patients need to trust their provider and know they will be there for them long after a vaccine is given.

"So many of the barriers that are present inside of testing and vaccination are dissolved by not the message but the messenger — who's delivering the message, who's delivering the shot, who's delivering the test — and more times than not that supersedes how creatively you're trying to script why people should show up," Arnold said.

So far, Arnold said, many questions from patients receiving the vaccine are related to myths, side effects and when their immune response will kick in.

"We have a range of emotions among patients receiving the vaccines — from apprehension, yet knowing it's the right thing to do — to those who are completely overjoyed," she said.

Vaccinations through the health department-affiliated sites, including Clinica Medicos, are provided free of charge. Arnold said that is important to convey, since cost is another common reason why people don't seek medical care.

Barnes said that the Chattanooga Housing Authority, as well as African American and Hispanic churches — which last year hosted highly successful COVID-19 testing events — are some of the other groups that are now conducting vaccine outreach.

Drive-thru COVID-19 vaccines at Clinica Medicos

When: Sunday, Feb. 7, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: 1300 E. 23rd St., Chattanooga

How: Be eligible for vaccination in Hamilton County and call 423-206-4530 to make an appointment

"Right now, we don't have enough vaccine or infrastructure to handle drive-thru [vaccination events] at individual church properties. In the meantime, we are working with churches to identify [people] 75 years of age and older in their congregations that are interested in vaccinations and need some assistance," Barnes said.

Meanwhile, CARTA is offering free rides to vaccine sites for people without other means of transportation. So far, about 60 residents have used the service, according to Lisa Maragnano, executive director of the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority.

Arnold said part of the reason vaccines haven't reached a wider portion of the population is because only select groups — front-line health care workers, first responders, long-term-care facility residents and staff and residents age 75 and up — are now able to receive vaccinations.

She expects far more minority residents will be vaccinated once vaccines become more widely available and eligibility is opened to younger age groups and people with chronic conditions.

"We're not sure when that's going to change," Arnold said. "But we hope that with increased availability and use of our resources, we'll reflect the enthusiasm that this community has toward being vaccinated."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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