By Aldon Thomas Stiles, California Black Media

With California set to do away with most of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions and prepare to fully reopen on June 15, some Black leaders and medical professionals are taking stock of the pandemic’s impact on Black communities.

They are also tracking readiness in those areas to return to business as usual.

As of May 7, over 60% of Californians had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. And 44% of people in the state are now fully vaccinated.

But the road to this point of the state’s journey to recovery has not been easy, says Dr. Jerry P. Abraham, who leads outreach programs at the Kedran Community Health Center in South Los Angeles.

“We drove up to the county Department of Public Health warehouse, we banged on those doors, we jumped up and down, we screamed, and we shouted,” Abraham said. “We waved our hands, ‘where are our vaccines?’ And we left with 100 doses that day.’”

Abraham shared his story during a webinar about the state’s COVID-19 recovery efforts organized by California Black Media in collaboration and the Center at the Sierra Health Foundation.

Not long after the pandemic started, the Kedran Community Health Center swiftly responded to provide people in South Los Angeles – many of them frontline healthcare workers and the elderly, with as many vaccines as they could get their hands on, Abraham said.

Dr. Oliver Brooks, Chief Medical Officer, Watts Healthcare Corporation, a community health center located in South Los Angeles, initially saw inequity in access to the vaccine in the Black community, but says, with time, things got better.

“Quite frankly right now, the vaccine is fairly widely available. An individual who has anything more than a passing desire to get vaccinated can get vaccinated,” Brooks said. “That being stated, in California, African Americans are 5% to 6% of the population and only 3.7% of those getting vaccinated. I don’t see it right now as an access issue more so than a complacency issue.”

David Tucker, spokesperson of the California Department of Public Health Vaccinate All 58 campaign, says even though the state has set June 15 as the date for reopening, it doesn’t mean that everything is back to normal.

“We still need to be cautious. We still need to wash our hands and wear masks when appropriate,” he said. “We need to get vaccinated. California has come together and truly met the moment and saved countless lives. COVID-19 rates and hospitalizations have been steadily decreasing and our vaccinations efforts continue to increase.

So far, in California, there has been about 3.8 million COVID-19 cases and 62,269 deaths from complications of the disease. Health officials have administered more than 60 million COVID tests and administered over 32 million vaccines, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Tucker said four million of those vaccines were administered in areas hit hardest by COVID-19.

But only 25 % of Black Californians have been vaccinated so far.

“We have come a really long way since the beginning of this pandemic,” said California’s Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris. “We are able to connect with other people again – it’s good for our health psychologically and emotionally.

But to maintain the low numbers of COVID cases in California, Burke Harris said people have to continue to get vaccinated and spread the word to their family members and people in their community about the importance of getting the COVID shot.

Burke Harris said it’s also important for people who get vaccinated to include their race. She says it makes it easier to track how many African Americans in California are getting vaccinated and make the case for more resources to increase those numbers if they are low.

On testing, Brooks explained why he feels people are no longer regularly checking to see if they are infected with COVID. He says it has become less of a priority in California but assured that the decline isn’t much cause for concern.

“But the reason for not getting tested, from what we can ascertain, has nothing to do with hesitancy, just not noting the need,” Brooks said. “I think that because of the vaccine, the virus is just not circulating as much and there’s not the urgency that is felt for providing COVID-19 [tests].”

Brooks mentioned that there have been some holdouts for getting vaccinated but, according to him, that is to be expected.

“There will always be a hardcore percent of any given population, that hovers around 15 to 20% in America, that for COVID vaccines are saying ‘I’m not doing it,'” Brooks said.

Despite these holdouts, Brooks thinks California will be relatively safe to reopen in June.

“There was a section of the population where their mindset was ‘wait and see.’ The number of the ‘wait and see’ is on its way down and those who are fully vaccinated are on the way up,” Brooks said. “What we are seeing with the Black community is a continued uptake of vaccinations.”

The Rev. K.W. Tulloss, pastor of Weller Street Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles and president of the Baptist Minister’s Conference of LA, says although the number of COVID cases are decreasing, it is still important for leaders to continue encouraging people to get vaccinated and tested when necessary.

“It is very important that we as a faith community, rise and come together to push the importance of this vaccination. We in the faith community have been distant over the past year. Many of our members have been afflicted. We have lost loved one. We have done funerals virtually,” he said.

In order to get back to a sense of normalcy, Tulloss continued, “It is very important that we look for opportunities to push this vaccine.

“We have to continue to educate, continue to encourage our faith community to rise up and recognize the importance of getting vaccinated. We’re tired of going to funerals because of COVID. We’re tired of being separated and isolated because of COVID,” he said.