Health Officials Focus on Vaccinating Minority Communities

Teams are being deployed across Arkansas to ensure equal access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith with the Arkansas Department of Health discusses efforts to vaccinate minority communities Apr. 6, 2021.

African Americans make up about 15 percent of the state’s population, but only represent 10 percent of the nearly 478,000 Arkansans who’ve been fully vaccinated. 

“It shows that we have to continue to work to overcome a historic reservation and concerns about vaccination in the minority community,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during his weekly update on the pandemic yesterday. 

Michelle Smith is director of the Office of Health Equity at the Arkansas Department of Health. In January, her office developed health equity strike teams to assist state efforts in ensuring special populations have equal access to vaccine distribution sites. These groups include racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, faith-based organizations, rural communities and elderly populations.

These teams, which work with local leaders, are dispatched into counties with low vaccination rates. As a result of these efforts, more than 12,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered in Crittenden, Desha, Jefferson, Pulaski, Sebastian and St. Francis counties. 

“As vaccine distribution continues, ensuring racial equity is important for mitigating the disproportionate impacts on people of color, preventing widening health disparities and achieving broad population immunity,” Smith said. 

With the elimination of phases for the state’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout and the hiring of 30 employees, additional health equity strike teams are being deployed across the state. The goal is to distribute 8,000 vaccines in April with at least 50 percent of recipients belonging to minority groups. 

To achieve this goal, Smith said they are partnering with the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, Arkansas Black Mayors Association, Baptist Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine in Jonesboro.  

More than 500 volunteers have supported strike team clinics in recent months and additional Arkansans are needed to assist at upcoming events, Smith said. 

“Volunteering has many forms and can range from assisting someone who may not have transportation, internet access, or it may be a way to reassure someone who is still uncertain about getting vaccinated,” she said. 

Strike teams will administer the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot at clinics this week. One event is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at Shorter College in North Little Rock. Another clinic is planned for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Larry S. Bryant Center in Forrest City. Appointments can be made by calling the state’s vaccination hotline at 1-800-985-6030, but Smith said they will also accept walk-ins. 

While these clinics are offering single-dose vaccines, other vaccination sites are providing Pfizer and Moderna shots, which require two doses to become fully immunized. There is concern among health officials that some Arkansans are not receiving both shots.

“We’re starting to see increasing numbers of individuals that aren’t returning or have missed their second dose and we want them to please catch up on that,” Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said. 

Arkansans who missed their second shot can call the state’s vaccine hotline for assistance in making another appointment. More information about vaccine clinics in your community can be found at the Arkansas Department of Health’s website

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.