Affirmations LGBTQ community center has announced the launch of a three-year collaboration of community partners across the state designed to increase the rate of Covid vaccination throughout the LGBTQ+ community.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) granted $1.06 million for the project, including funds for hiring two contract employees. Affirmations Executive Director Dave Garcia, along with Development Director John Joanette, took the lead on applying for the funds, which will also benefit the other nine LGBTQ+ community centers that comprise the Michigan Community Centers Network. Sibling organizations such as Stand with Trans and Transgender Michigan are slated to receive a portion of the funds, too.
“This funding represents one of the largest investments in LGBTQ+ health in the state’s history outside of HIV/AIDS and is Affirmations’ largest grant in its 32+ year history,” Joanette said.
Each of the sibling organizations will receive a stipend of $5,000 per year for each of the three years of the grant.
“What I’ve said to them is I will sign a memorandum of understanding with each of our partner organizations,” Garcia said. “We’re working on those now, and we are basically asking them simply to help us come up with creative ideas in their backyards to reach the ultimate goal of getting more LGBTQ people vaccinated.”
Garcia said they would be intentional about targeting efforts to underserved populations within the LGBTQ+ community.
“The intersection of race, ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation has complicated adoption of the COVID-19 vaccine in many corners of the state, including both urban and rural settings, where access has been limited, and education on the safety of the vaccines have been, in some cases, nonexistent,” Garcia said.
“You and I know that within the broad LGBTQ community, there’s a significant African American population and a Latino population and a rural population,” he added. “That’s why we wrote the community centers into the grant so that we would have home bases, in a sense, across the state.” For example, the Jim Toy Center in Ann Arbor could present opportunities for vaccination clinics or town halls at the annual Ann Arbor Pride celebration.
Garcia said he has witnessed vaccine hesitancy first-hand. He’s encouraging his community partners to think creatively.
“I think it’s going to be a very big challenge,” Garcia said. “Those that want to be vaccinated, in large part, have been. There are exceptions to that, [such as] finding it difficult to get to vaccination sites and things along those lines. We wrote a lot of dollars in this grant for transportation.”
Some of those transportation dollars will be used for services like Uber or Lyft to take individuals to vaccine appointments, while the majority will be spent on enabling the two new hires to travel the state, working with the LGBTQ+ community partners in ways tailored to their unique needs. Affirmations is currently conducting interviews to fill those positions: a COVID-19 Vaccine Project Manager and a COVID-19 Outreach Coordinator. Conceivably, the field person would be able to administer the vaccine.
“We’re looking for health professionals that have experience working in underserved communities,” Garcia said. He mentioned an applicant with experience in HIV prevention. “While it’s not the same as Covid, a lot of the relationships that this person has in underserved communities, particularly communities of color, could prove beneficial for a project like this.”
Because few states collect data on sexual orientation or gender identity, it’s difficult to determine the number of LGBTQ+ people nationwide who have been vaccinated against the virus thus far. Even an LGBTQ+ person who’s not closeted can remain invisible.
One report released in July of this year represented a weighted survey of 15,000 self-identified LGBTQ+ community members living in the United States. Nearly all survey participants (92%) reported at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot by the time of the research. For Black LGBTQ+ people, that number was 85%.
Garcia doubts those numbers. Statistics from a survey are not as reliable as a study, he pointed out. Further, Garcia is looking beyond yesterday’s numbers: The grant spans three years.
“I have a feeling boosters are going to play a big role,” Garcia predicts. He also mentioned the unknowns related to variants of the virus. “My point is I think this grant is going to change a lot or evolve over the next three years. And all the more reason for us to be working closely with the [Michigan] Community Centers Network and the various health departments in different counties around the state of Michigan. And who better to know those relationships in those county health departments than the community centers in those counties?”
Perhaps the success of Affirmations’ earlier vaccine days at the center was due to the center representing a “safer” space for those who mistrust the healthcare system, whether that has to do with historical reasons like issues related to HIV/AIDS or other reasons.
And it’s exactly those individuals — people who are immunocompromised because they are living with HIV/AIDS — who are among those most needing shots in arms. Garcia welcomes ideas for ways to reach them and the wider LGBTQ+ community to help end the devastation of the pandemic.
“Everything’s on the table in terms of the ultimate goal… that they got a shot,” Garcia said.
Garcia admitted he originally thought receiving the grant was unlikely. Both he and LGBT Detroit Executive Director Curtis Lipscomb believe it would not have been possible without the ability of the Michigan Community Centers Network to leverage their resources and leverage their partnerships with government agencies.
“COVID can be prevented by vaccination and recommended public health prevention methods,” Lipscomb said. “This award to Michigan LGBTQ+ centers helps educate vulnerable and miseducated residents and heightens the importance and relevance of the Michigan Community Centers Network for statewide collaboration.”
The Michigan Community Centers Network comprises LGBTQ+ community centers and organizations across the state, including Affirmations, LGBT Detroit, Out Center, Ruth Ellis Center, Jim Toy Center, OutFront Kalamazoo, Jackson Pride Center, Grand Rapids Pride Center, Out on the Lake Shore, Polestar LGBT+ Community Center, Equality Michigan, Transgender Michigan, Human Rights Campaign Michigan and Stand with Trans.