Bringing vaccination to communities that need access (and trust)


By Ben Stocking and Karla Jimenez-Magdaleno

Tsegay Berhe knew that members of Seattle’s Eritrean community would only be willing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine from someone they trusted. And he knew the perfect place to hold a clinic: The Eritrean Holy Trinity Orthodox Church. 

The church in Northeast Seattle serves as a community hub for Eritreans from across the region. Many members are elderly refugees who speak limited English or have trouble accessing transportation.  

“They have great trust in the church,” said Tsegay, a church advisor and president of Hope Eritrean Social Services. “They wouldn’t have gotten vaccinated without trust.” 

  • Portrait of Eritrean woman at vaccination clinic.
  • Translator converses with two women at White Center
  • Khmer woman in wheelchair and hat
  • Khmer man and woman volunteer at White Center clinic
  • Portrait of man with mask
  • Two volunteers at Skyway clinic
  • Man outside Eritrean Holy Trinity Orthodox Church
  • Three Shoreline firefighters at clinic registration table
  • Couple in Shoreline after vaccination. Man displays post-vaccine band-aid on his bicep.

In King County and across the nation, COVID-19 has had disproportionate impacts on African-Americans, Latinos, Indigenous people, Pacific Islanders, and other communities of color, many of which have experienced racism or neglect at the hands of the medical establishment. 

To reach these communities, Public Health – Seattle & King County has been supporting a series of community vaccination clinics like the one at Holy Trinity. Non-profit organizations with close community ties have played a crucial role, co-sponsoring the clinics and recruiting people to participate.  

Public Health helps match organizations with vaccine providers and provides technical assistance. 

Community vaccine clinics complement mass vaccine sites

More than 400 people attended a recent clinic at Holy Trinity. The event was co-sponsored by the Lake City Collective, a non-profit organization that seeks to unite people across cultures. Firefighters from Seattle’s North Precinct administered the vaccines. 

Clinics were also held recently in White Center, Lake City, Skyway and Shoreline, and more are being planned. These community events are an effective complement to the mass vaccination clinics being organized at Lumen Field, Kent’s Showare Center, and elsewhere across King County. 

“There are people who just don’t want to get vaccinated at a mass vaccination site,” said Dr. Ahmed Ali, president of the Somali Health Board, who helped organize the Skyway event. “They want to be in a place that feels comfortable.” 

“There are people who just don’t want to get vaccinated at a mass vaccination site,” says Dr. Ahmed Ali, president of the Somali Health Board, who helped organize the Skyway event. “They want to be in a place that feels comfortable.” (PHSKC/Karla Jimenez-Magdaleno)

That is very true of Seattle’s Khmer community, said Thyda Ros, who helped organize a recent clinic for Cambodian refugees at the Beverly Park Baptist Church in White Center.  

“Navigating the system is very difficult, and we don’t want our elders to feel lost or confused,” she said. “They need a lot of hand-holding, and we want to make sure they have support. A big part of our culture is to respect our elders.” 

Thyda is a member of the Khmer Health Board and executive director of the Khmer Community of Seattle and King County. She and her team of volunteers reached out directly to community members, encouraging them to get vaccinated and arranging rides to the clinic. 

“Navigating the system is very difficult, and we don’t want our elders to feel lost or confused.”

Thyda Ros, Khmer community of seattle and king county

The event was co-sponsored by King County and Harborview Medical Center, which provided the vaccines. 

Among the 232 people who signed up for the White Center clinic were Un Saeleang, 76, and her friend Hui Thi Ly, 86.  

“I’m so happy that I have the vaccine,” Un said. “Now I can spend time with my son, my daughter-in-law and my grandkids.” 

“I’m happy, too,” Hui Thi said. “I have a big family, and now I can see them again.” 

The Khmer Community of Seattle and King County invited Un Sealeang, left, and Hui Thi Ly to the clinic in White Center. “I trust this organization,” Un says. (PHSKC/Ben Stocking)

At the Skyway clinic, the feeling was the same. 

Sandra Hunter, 61, of Renton, said the vaccine didn’t hurt a bit. “I have more peace of mind now. It’s like having a shield.” 

The Skyway event was organized by the Somali Health Board and five area churches. King County offered support, and Othello Pharmacy provided the vaccines.  

The clinic was held at the Holy Temple Evangelistic Center, where Willie McClain serves as Bishop.  

Roughly 210 people were vaccinated, he said, and about 70 percent were members of the African-American community. 

“There’s something about coming to a church,” Bishop McClain said. “People feel more comfortable.” 

Leaders use different approaches to spread the word about vaccinations

Some community members were hesitant about getting vaccinated, Bishop McClain said, because they have heard misinformation about its safety. To reassure them, he got vaccinated himself. 

“I just took my shot,” he said. “When people heard I was taking it, they said, ‘Ok, I’ll go ahead and take it, too.” 

Bishop McLain and his wife, Diane McClain, recruited people through their church’s Facebook page, and news about the event began to spread by word of mouth. 

For the event at the Eritrean church, Tsegay and other church leaders messaged the community using WhatsApp. Throughout the year, the church has also been holding seminars on Zoom to educate church members about COVID-19 and how to slow its spread. 

“People had absorbed a lot of misinformation about the vaccine on social media,” Tsegay said. “It’s taken time to persuade them, but I think people are realizing that getting vaccinated is very important. It’s a matter of life and death.” 

Organizations interested in partnering with Public Health to plan a community vaccination event can begin by consulting our workbook here.

Bishop Willie McClain and his wife, Diane McClain, hosted a clinic at Holy Temple Evangelistic Center in Skyway. “There’s something about coming to a church,” Bishop McClain says. “People feel more comfortable.” (PHSKC/Karla Jimenez-Magdaleno)

Originally published 3/30/2021