Soon after Arkansas began allowing people over 70 to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in January, Wanda King heard from her aunt and cousin, who fell in that age group, that they were struggling to get their shots. They live in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, a rural town in the eastern part of the state with a population of about 650. The town has a medical clinic, but no pharmacy.
“The town is really limited on resources,” says King, a native of Cotton Plant who now lives in Little Rock. “Basically, they were asking me for help.”
So, she turned to her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister Michelle Smith, who is the director of the office of health equity and HIV elimination at the Arkansas department of health. Smith helped King locate a pharmacist in the town of Brinkley, 12 miles away, who was willing to join them in hosting a clinic in Cotton Plant in late February that would offer 180 vaccination slots.
“I immediately got on the phone and started spreading the word, putting it on Facebook, and asking people to help me spread the word,” King says. She recruited other sorority sisters to help coordinate sign-ups, purchase snacks, masks and hand sanitizer, and greet people on the day of the event.
“Anything we can do to roll out the red carpet for these individuals, that’s what we want to do,” she adds.
The clinic in Cotton Plant is part of a broader effort by the state health department and Arkansas chapters of historically Black sororities and fraternities, known as the Divine Nine, working together to get Black Arkansans vaccinated. Through the partnership, hundreds have gotten their shots so far.
Black Greek Letter Organizations, formerly known as the National Pan-Hellenic Council. Membership in these organizations is lifelong, and they have been involved with health initiatives for more than 100 years. Smith says the Covid -19 vaccination effort is an extension of that.
“If you want inroads into the Black community, you start with the church, and then the next step is the fraternities and sororities,” she says. “They are trusted leaders in the community, so if we want to get information out to a larger swath of people, we go to these groups.”
Nationwide, Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19. The population is nearly three times more likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die from the virus as white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Black Americans are also being vaccinated at much lower rates than their counterparts.
Nearly 630,000 Arkansans were vaccinated by the end of February. But a state health department spokesperson said the agency is still compiling the data to identify how many of those are Black residents. Currently, anyone age 65 and older, healthcare workers and educators in Arkansas are eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine.
The Black Greek organizations got involved with vaccination efforts in January after Smith heard that some members of her sorority weren’t able to get their shot. To find out why, she created a “needs assessment” survey, which she first sent to her own sorority members and then to other sorority and fraternity chapters in Arkansas.
Access was the biggest barrier, Smith says. Most couldn’t get on a vaccine waiting list or didn’t know how to get an appointment. That many vaccine appointments are being scheduled online was another problem, since broadband internet access is lacking in parts of rural Arkansas.
After identifying who needed a vaccine, Smith contacted pharmacies around the state and asked them to devote vaccination slots to these individuals. So far, nearly 500 people have been vaccinated thanks to the Black sororities and fraternities’ efforts, and they have held clinics across the state.
Beverly Cook, the Arkansas state director of Zeta Phi Beta sorority, says she has helped sign people up for vaccine appointments, and afterwards, she sends thank-you notes to those who got vaccinated.
Other Zeta Phi Beta members have driven people to their vaccination appointments or paid for gas cards and Uber rides. They have also volunteered at clinics to show people where to go, answer questions and give them snacks after their shots.
Seeing a friendly face has helped put everyone at ease, Cook says. “Most people have heard of sororities and the things that we do in the community, and because they have that trust in us, they’ll trust the things that we’re doing.”
Easing fears and skepticism about the vaccine is another key role of Black sororities and fraternities, says Deborah Bland, the Arkansas state coordinator of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, who lives in Helena-West Helena in the Mississippi River Delta area. Her group made phone calls, sent emails and created social media posts to spread the word about vaccination clinics.
“You have skepticism, first of all, because this is new, and there hasn’t been this magnitude of a vaccination,” Bland says. “You have a lot of distrust based upon previous things that have happened in our community.”
Skepticism and hesitancy is rooted in a distrust of the medical establishment among some Black Americans, stemming from events such as the Tuskegee experiment and institutional racism in the medical community. According to a study by Langer Research, the NAACP and other groups, Black Americans are twice as likely to trust information about Covid-19 when it comes from their own community.
To address some of the distrust and highlight the role of Black Greek organizations in health initiatives, the Arkansas department of health created a series of YouTube videos featuring prominent members of the Black community, Smith says.
Appearing in one of the videos is Cedric Williams, the mayor of Forrest City, in eastern Arkansas and a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He helped organize a vaccination clinic in Forrest City, where members of the fraternity volunteered as greeters, runners or in any way they were needed.
The more people who get vaccinated, the less hesitancy there will be, says Williams, who got his shot during the clinic to illustrate how city leaders were stepping up.
“It was extremely heartwarming,” Williams says. “Just to see that they wanted to get vaccinated and that they see this is a way to get back to some form of normalcy to where they can feel comfortable going to the grocery store or to church.”
Ensuring that everyone continues to have access to the vaccine is Smith’s goal for the program, and she hopes Black sororities and fraternities can help even more Arkansans get vaccinated. More clinics are in the works, and they are ready to schedule appointments for more people once the state allows more groups to be vaccinated.
“I’m just happy that people are so excited about getting vaccinated,” Smith says. “The larger issue is access. [Black Arkansans] just don’t have the same access as other individuals, and so we’re trying to even the field by giving them the information, so they, too, can have access to the vaccine.”