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Nonprofit connects the underserved with COVID-19 resources

A nonprofit’s initiative to connect underserved communities with COVID-19 resources partnered with Downtown nonprofit Homeboy Industries for a community pop-up testing and vaccination site on Jan. 19.

The initiative, myCovidMD, launched during the beginning of the pandemic as an extension of the Shared Harvest Foundation, a nonprofit under the Shared Harvest Fund, a social enterprise matching volunteers with student debt with businesses and organizations for work in exchange for debt relief.

Dr. Afoh-Manin, co-founder of the Shared Harvest Fund and myCovidMD, called the initiative a two-part solution to the pandemic. It provides disenfranchised residents with health care professionals through telehealth services and connects them with COVID-19 resources through pop-up events.

Homeboy Industries — a nonprofit with the world’s largest gang intervention program that focuses on improving the lives of formerly incarcerated individuals through rehabilitative, educational and health services and programs — hosted the event at its Chinatown headquarters.

The myCovidMD pop-up vaccinated about 150 community members and Homeboy Industries staff.

Father Greg Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries in 1988, said, “Our partnership with Shared Harvest, myCovidMD, is important because it involves their organization providing vaccination clinics and COVID awareness for our community and those throughout Los Angeles.

“Vaccinations are the disruptor for this worldwide pandemic. With intentionality, the clinic yesterday was a community event and our Homeboy community members felt comfortable receiving their vaccinations in the space. We are grateful to have this relationship with Shared Harvest.”

Manin, whose medical professional experience as an emergency room physician and crisis response during Hurricane Katrina, prompted her involvement in founding Shared Harvest Fund and myCovidMD.

“People who are providing services are just not happy, especially people of color. They’re coming in with six figures of student debt, they’re trying to navigate a hierarchal system and they all go in with the heart to do service; sometimes that heart to do service is manipulated by the health care system,” she said.

“I realized that we need to take care of our volunteers and the people on the front line. The Shared Harvest model came from an idea that we are sharing the harvest of all of our talents and skills. With this model we can reduce the burden of student loan debt and elevate the culture of volunteering.”

The pivot to create myCovidMD became a natural piece, fitting into the Shared Harvest model, Manin said. The volunteers or Community Health Partners (CHP) that work with Shared Harvest Fund and myCovidMD include trained doctors, nurses, EMTs, therapists, social workers and other front-line health care providers with a concern for social inequities and issues.

According to Manin, CHP volunteers are instrumental to myCovidMD, and so far, volunteers have helped vaccinate and test in targeted areas in South LA and East LA, including Watts, Compton and Boyle Heights. Currently, Manin said about 600 CHPs in the Shared Harvest network are active and 3,000 are registered for volunteer designation.

Though the initiative only provides COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters to areas in LA County, CHPs and pop-up testing health clinics with myCovidMD are national and have serviced areas like Oakland, Atlanta and Detroit.

“(These volunteers) are exactly who are needed to address the health inequities that are happening when Black and brown communities were dying at incredibly high rates and could not get access to the health system,” she said.

“MyCovidMD was a vehicle for building a network of health providers who cared about these inequities and wanted to find a way to create a public health safety net.”

Derek Hansbrough, security and community relations with Homeboy Industries, received his booster shot at the myCovidMD community vaccination pop-up on Jan. 19 and his initial vaccination at a previous vaccine event hosted at Homeboy Industries.

“The only reason I got the vaccinations is because they were at Homeboy Industries. It was convenient. Throughout the cities that I’ve lived and the ones I pass by to get to work, every time I pass by testing sites, it looks inconvenient and hard to get,” he said.

Hansbrough has been with Homeboy Industries for a year, going through the program and getting help with school while helping out with security.

“It felt good being at an event that embraced the community as a whole,” he said about the event. “When I went, all of the workers were nice and everyone was helpful. I felt that the event was welcoming and positive. It was informative and the people there were warmhearted. I never felt like I couldn’t ask a question.”

Manin explained the myCovidMD testing and vaccination pop-ups not only engage underserved communities directly through health services, both in person and online, but also through a “block party type of experience” where a certain relatability, trust and connection can be made with health care providers.

As of Jan. 19, CDC statistics about fully vaccinated individuals, with regard to race and ethnicity, report that Black, Hispanic and Latino are low, among other ethnic groups, which are reported to be even lower compared to white counterparts. Manin attributes some of these statistics to a general mistrust, due to misinformation, coupled with accessibility to resources.

Through the myCovidMD outreach initiative, there have been over 7,000 vaccinations given to individuals in disproportionately affected areas with LA, and about 13,000 COVID-19 tests have been administered nationwide, according to Manin.

The purpose of the block party style, COVID-19 resource pop-ups is to “demystify medicine and health care,” manifesting as an environment where music can be heard from blocks away and where balloons, giveaways and open communication with health care professionals and Shared Harvest associates is normal, even on social issues outside of medical concerns, according to Manin.

“Health is in the backdrop, but we want people to feel comfortable and invited to join the discussion,” Manin said about the health care space and the friendly, accessible environment that’s missing.

“The first thing is to make a connection. Be there, be present. Look like you’re from the community and take off the white coat and scrubs and start the conversation. We have people who follow us because they have a good time and think it’s just a block party, and by their third time, they get vaccinated.”

“That’s what we want to do; we’re not here to judge. We want to keep the community safe and spread facts. Most importantly, we want to demystify health care because it’s not perfect.”

What keeps Manin going during a pandemic era, where so many are experiencing hardship in various ways, is “the human aspect,” she said.

“The best part is realizing that it’s just that easy to be accessible, it makes a big difference. We make medicine so complicated.”

Manin said she appreciates the culture of myCovidMD because of the real connections to community members that are built, not only with her but with CHPs.

“What happens is that it’s not a one-and-done experience at the pop-up events. There’s a lot of relationship building on the back end, which is helping people to be more trusting,” she said.

Manin explained that CHP volunteers are available to any individual lacking resources, especially individuals previously vaccinated or tested through myCovidMD. Those individuals can reach out for anything from general medical advice to how to self-administer a COVID-19 test.

From a health care standpoint, Manin chimed in on the current state of the pandemic regarding the easily transmutable omicron variant, effectively urging for a disposition of hopefulness with a healthy and reasonable amount of cautiousness.

“We are only into the second year into (the pandemic). With omicron, we know it spreads fast and, so far, it doesn’t impact people as bad, but that’s only over a short amount of data,” she said.

“There’s a twilight zone that’s happening in the hospitals. If you’re vaccinated, you’re not feeling the impact that we are seeing in the hospitals and emergency rooms where we see people coming in droves, some in critical care, who are typically not vaccinated.”

The urged caution from the doctor stems from instances like the CDC statement, released Dec. 27, declaring that only a five-day quarantine is necessary, which is a walk-back from the CDC’s previous recommendation of a two-week quarantine.

Though Manin said, “There are decisions being made from a business lens, which, in my opinion, isn’t really smart from a health lens,” she comes from a place of understanding, being familiar with CDC guidelines as an experienced health care professional.

“The other thing about CDC, which ties back to breaking down the barrier between health care and humans, is that the CDC walks back a lot of things, but that’s OK,” she explained.

“That’s the natural occurrence of science; you get more data, you get more updates and you move forward. Because I’m of that culture, it doesn’t scare me, but if you’re looking at it as (someone not from that culture), it builds more mistrust. … This is why we are trying to build better relationships and break down those walls so people can understand how to interpret the science and data and not feel uncomfortable when things are retracted,” she said.

Manin advised getting tested and wearing masks as frequently as possible, along with recommending getting vaccinated or getting a booster shot.

“This is for the community. Health care is for them. Just because someone doesn’t know all of the details doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be treated with respect and have someone sit down with them and help them understand it,” she said about the myCovidMD mission.

“Take care of the community. Take care of each other because we’re all interconnected. If we’re not all getting the treatment, we’re all going to feel the impact of that.”



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