'Sister circle, activate!': Black docs at WakeMed lead effort to solve NC's COVID vaccine equity issues

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- When WakeMed pediatrician Rasheeda Monroe volunteered as a COVID-19 vaccinator last month, she saw something was missing.

"I noticed that it was an amazing event, over 1,100 people got vaccinated. But, I thought where are the people of color," she said.

As North Carolina grapples with data showing inequities in its vaccine rollout, Dr. Monroe and a group of Black Raleigh physicians hatched a plan to do something about it. She started brainstorming with her WakeMed colleagues who call themselves the "sister circle." They're all friends; they're all black; and they're all doctors: a psychiatrist, gynecologists, obstetricians, pediatrician and family med physician.

"We were watching what was happening in the world, particularly the loss of life with black and brown people and we felt moved to do something about it," said WakeMed Behavioral Health Director Dr. Nerissa Price.

Their first thought was to proudly post the pictures of themselves getting the COVID shot to help reduce vaccine hesitancy in marginalized communities impacted by historic medical abuse and distrust.

"Once people in our community realized I was getting it and I trusted the vaccine, they were more willing to line up and get it," said WakeMed obstetrician Dr. Netasha McLawhorn.

But, it's not merely an issue of hesitancy -- it's also access: seniors in communities of color who may have no computer, internet access or struggle to navigate a Wake County vaccine sign-up system overloaded with requests

Dr. Monroe went to administrators at WakeMed with a proposition: if she could find the Black and brown seniors, would the health system provide the vaccine doses. WakeMed challenged her to find 300 people willing to get the shot.

"So, I immediately reached out to the sister circle and I said, 'Alright it's time to activate.' And within 24 hours I came back to them and said, 'I have 700, is that enough?!'"

The sister circle, aided by a small army of volunteers, vaccinated 700 people at its first clinic. In a second round of clinics in southeast Raleigh's hard-hit 27610 zip code, 1,700 people got the shot. 95% of the patients were people of color.

"This was a soul-lifting experience," said WakeMed family medicine physician Dr. Jacqueline Hicks. "I don't think a lot of people know what we're capable of or knew the impact we would make on our community."

WakeMed gynecologist Dr. Michele Benoit-Wilson has hopes the sister circle's efforts help encourage more people in communities of color to seek health care in general, not just because of COVID. "I'm hoping that this has far-reaching impact even beyond this effort. To tell our community members that we are here and that they can trust us," she said.

The sister circle will spend this weekend giving second doses of the vaccine to patients from its first two rounds of clinics. There are plans for another round of clinics next Saturday, February 20 in Garner with a goal of 2,000 COVID shots in historically marginalized communities.
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