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Eugene Anderson receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from Carolyne Aremo, RN, at the first vaccine clinic in an African Nova Scotian community, in Upper Hammonds Plains, N.S., on April 8, 2021.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The parking lot at Emmanuel Baptist Church was overflowing on Thursday morning for the first time since the pandemic began.

But the people coming to the sprawling rural church outside Halifax weren’t here for prayer. They came for the COVID-19 vaccine, as part of a pilot project to better immunize the province’s African Nova Scotian community against the coronavirus.

Nova Scotia has enlisted the help of some of its historically Black churches to fight vaccine hesitancy among older African Nova Scotians, using pastors and community leaders to encourage people to get their shot. It’s fuelled in part by data out of the United States suggesting Black people are as much as three times more likely to be admitted to hospital with the virus.

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Rev. Lennett Anderson, Emmanuel’s senior pastor, used his Sunday sermon and social-media channels to urge people to come to the church for the one-day clinic. The Association of Black Social Workers also called people directly, using census records, to book appointments for a community that sometimes mistrusts health officials because of racism or mistreatment they’ve experienced in the past, he said.

“There’s an apprehension, people are uneasy, because history plays a role,” Rev. Anderson explained. “So we’re trying to remove any barriers, any hindrances that people might have. We knew that people would feel more comfortable going into their own community.”

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The clinic will move to a church in Cherry Brook, another predominantly Black community, next week. More vaccination clinics are planned at other African Nova Scotian communities later this month.

Rev. Anderson, whose church was established by Black refugees from the War of 1812, acknowledged not everyone is happy to see a clinic serving only one group of people. Nova Scotia has largely relied on pharmacists and doctors to administer its vaccines, and lags the rest of the country with fewer than 7 per cent of the population partly vaccinated.

To appease non-Black members of his congregation, the church tried to help others connect with pharmacies in the area offering the vaccine. But in a province where COVID-19 has largely been kept at bay – there are only 40 active cases and one person in hospital with the virus – there has been little public protest, he said.

“Our congregation is a mosaic, and we didn’t want to cause any offence, like ‘Why is there a clinic only for people of African descent?’” he said “But the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

In late February, Nova Scotia held its first of 13 vaccination clinics at Mi’kmaq communities around the province. The province’s top doctor says some racialized communities need to be approached differently because of inherent distrust in the health care system.

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“We have heard from community leaders that for these reasons, there is mistrust of the vaccine in these communities,” Dr. Robert Strang said. “This is why it’s so important that the vaccine be offered in a culturally responsive way that takes the lived reality of African Nova Scotians into consideration.”

Debra Gannon, the project co-ordinator for the African Nova Scotian clinics, said the flow of people coming through the doors was “unbelievable.” More than 250 people, all 55 years old and over, were vaccinated on Thursday. Many more signed up for a waiting list.

“Having this clinic available, not just in this community but all the African-Nova Scotian communities, is certainly a great advantage to those who don’t have the opportunity to go to outside clinics, pharmacies or wherever the other clinics may be,” she said.

Dean Smith, who also volunteered to set up the clinic, was among those vaccinated at the church. He said the clinic and others like it will play an important role in protecting African-Nova Scotian communities, which have been “impacted disproportionately by COVID-19.” People trust their church, and that goes a long way, he said.

“Emmanuel Baptist Church is the bedrock of Hammonds Plains and a number of African-Nova Scotian communities in the surrounding area,” Mr. Smith said, while waiting in the recovery area. “So I think it’s a perfect opportunity for people to come to the church and to get their inoculation at the same time.”

Andrew Boudreau, a public-health nurse, was one of 10 vaccinators stationed at tables inside the church’s main sanctuary. He said he was proud to be part of a project to promote health equity, and said “it’s really special” to see how well people responded to the clinic.

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Rev. Anderson, whose congregants helped stack chairs after their Easter Sunday service in anticipation of the crowds, said he expected a large turnout. But was stunned at what he saw when he walked inside the church.

“The energy in the building was electrifying,” the pastor said. “I was surprised to see how excited people were to get the vaccine. I thought there would be some uneasiness or some nervousness, but no. It was amazing.”

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