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Have a Little Faith

How members of the least religious generation are leveraging an interfaith approach to move the needle forward on COVID-19 vaccination rates in the South.

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With the winter season upon us, COVID-19 cases are once again trending upward, new variants are on the horizon, and the second anniversary of the pandemic is around the corner.

Vaccine rates in the South have stagnated with North Carolina’s fully vaccinated rate still hovering right over the 50% mark. With no forward progress, medical professionals fear that risks from new variants plus the unchecked spread of COVID-19 in our community will simply become the new “normal.”

To understand more about the vaccination plateau, we spoke to the Director of Infectious Disease at Atrium Health, Dr. Katie Passaretti, and a grassroots nonprofit team from Bridge Builders Carolinas. In the process, we learned more about what might (finally) move the needle forward on this pandemic.

The answer might surprise you: faith-based organizations and Gen Z.

Story by the numbers:

  • 54.5%: Current “fully vaccinated” rate in North Carolina
  • 1997-2012: Birth years of Gen Z individuals
  • October 31: Atrium Health vaccine mandate deadline
  • ⅓: Portion of GenZ (born between 1997-2012) individuals with “no religion”

Why it’s worth reading the full story:

To challenge your assumptions about unvaccinated populations.


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Updated: December 5, 2021 – Charlotte, NC
Original Publish Date: October 15, 2021

Dr. Katie Passaretti, Director of Infectious Disease at Atrium Health, wakes up to face day 630 in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. As she pulls on her white coat, she thinks of the 775,000+ Americans we’ve lost along the way, including a close friend and countless patients she’s personally cared for in their final hours.

Dr. Passaretti was the first North Carolinian to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on December 14, 2020. Image courtesy of Atrium Health.

Triple-trained at Johns Hopkins University, people like Dr. Passaretti describe their training in the Osler Medical Residency program at Hopkins like the trenches of war. Yet, she says this pandemic has required more of her mind, spirit, endurance, and heart.

19-year old Jackson Kakwenya wakes up in his dorm room, unpacks his bag from a long week of studying for finals, and repacks it with supplies for the vaccine clinic he will help run at Dream Center Charlotte. Kakwenya, a native of Zambia, is an advanced freshman at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), majoring in computer engineering and mathematics with a concentration in cybersecurity.

Jackson Kakwenya, an advanced freshman at Johnson C. Smith University. Image courtesy of Jackson Kakwenya.

He is also a student intern for Bridge Builders Carolinas (BBC), a nonprofit founded by Dr. Suzanne Watts Henderson, Dean of the Belk Chapel and Professor of World Religions at Queens University.

Bridge Builders Carolinas (BBC) serves as a regional partner to national nonprofit, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and is primarily funded by The Duke Endowment.

BBC exists to educate the next generation of Carolinians on ways to lead in a religiously diverse world. The primary goal of their work is to foster an appreciation for difference as a catalyst to drive positive social change. 

To do so, the BBC leadership team has created a network of college/university campus partnerships that helps them to recruit student interns with connections to various parts of the Carolinas.

Kakwenya is one of such interns who has been trained to serve as the arms and legs for BBC’s current priority: raising the percentage of vaccinated individuals across the Carolinas.

Grassroots Efforts Move the Needle

As Dr. Passaretti arrives at CMC Main, she takes a seat in the office many North Carolinians look to as the arbiter of COVID-19 prevention guidelines. In her role as the Director of Infectious Disease, Dr. Passaretti seemingly holds the answers to how we might muddle our way out of this pandemic.

Unlike earlier pandemic days where updated guidelines and data needed to be reviewed at a rapid-fire pace, Dr. Passaretti has recently shifted much of her time toward more personal discussions about her colleagues’ choices to get vaccinated (or not).

Surprising to some based on her high-ranking role in the organization, Dr. Passaretti reports,

“A large portion of my time right now is being spent in these one-on-one conversations. Even with all of the data, knowledge, training, and facts, there are still medical professionals choosing to walk away from their careers over vaccine mandates.”

As of mid-October, just ahead of Atrium’s vaccine mandate deadline, Mecklenburg county’s fully vaccinated rate hovered right around 55%. Nearby Union county was lagging significantly until a recent jump from 39% to 49%.

Dr. Passaretti reports that relational, grassroots vaccination efforts that position community leaders as a voice of authority alongside vaccine incentives have been responsible for upticks in vaccination rates over the last quarter of this year.

And now, one of the largest healthcare systems in our state has had to take a similar approach to keep its employees, and those they serve, as protected as possible.

Vaccine Barriers: Trust, Access, and Transportation 

Axios Charlotte reporter, Danielle Chemtob, covers the evolving COVID-19 vaccination story across greater Charlotte and specifically focuses on communities of color. In Charlotte, the largest non-white populations are Black and LatinX individuals, who make up 35% and 14% of our population, respectively. (U.S. Census Data, 2020). These communities are significantly under-vaccinated as compared to the white population in Charlotte.

Data: North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Chart and credit: Danielle Chemtob and Jared Whalen, Axios.

Chemtob’s coverage supports Dr. Passaretti’s assessment of grassroots efforts being a key to increased vaccination rates in communities of color.

“Over the summer, there was a big effort for Charlotte’s two primary healthcare systems (Atrium and Novant) to partner with local faith communities. Churches often have the highest levels of trust within communities of color. We saw a significant uptick in vaccination rates amongst the Black and LatinX population in Charlotte as these clinics were continually hosted by churches and endorsed by their faith leaders.”

Clergy receive vaccines as part of a community + church partnership clinic with Atrium Health. Photo courtesy of Atrium Health.

Black individuals represented nearly a third of those vaccinated in the time period between June – August of 2021, with LatinX individuals representing an additional 11% during the same time period.

Church and community leader endorsements have proven to be powerful tools in increasing vaccination rates particularly in communities of color. However,  addressing vaccine education, access, and transportation are also critical factors to raising vaccination rates across underserved populations.

For a typical vaccine appointment, there is a somewhat lengthy process involved. Checking in, waiting in line, filling out paperwork, getting the vaccine, and then waiting for the fifteen-minute post-administration period all adds up, time-wise.

It is common for individuals in communities with the lowest vaccination rates to work one or more hourly jobs, often putting in 12+ hour days. With that reality, fitting in two vaccine appointments is not necessarily an easy task.

Beyond that, car ownership is not a given in all pockets of our city, nor is reliable public transportation. Actually getting to a clinic during a time that works within a very loaded work schedule can easily become a near-impossible feat.

Understanding the complex dynamics at play across communities with lower vaccination rates is critical to making successful clinics happen.

That’s where Jackson Kakwenya and Bridge Builders Carolinas come in. 

Reaching Underserved Communities

“I learned about Bridge Builders from my friend, fellow JCSU freshman, John. The effort drew me in because I fundamentally believe in the vaccine and very much want to make a positive impact on my new community here in Charlotte,” Kakwenya says. 

Bridge Builders provided him that opportunity at a time when Charlotte – and the U.S. – can use as many good-willed people and volunteers as possible. 

“Growing up in Zambia, I always wanted to study abroad. When we would role-play, I was always the learned guy from America. I dreamt of coming to the U.S. for college and now, have made that a reality.” 

Bridge Builders Charlotte leverages StarMed medical staff to provide vaccines at their community clinics. Photo courtesy of Bridge Builders Charlotte.

Kakwenya speaks highly of the training and resources he has gained as a Bridge Builders student intern. To prepare interns for success in setting up local vaccine clinics, Bridge Builders leverages resources and training materials from host organization, Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). Together, they have dubbed their efforts as “Faith in the Vaccine” clinics, a nod to their shared values of driving social good through an interfaith approach. 

“One of the most pressing challenges in vaccination is the lack of access to and trust for the vaccine among many American communities. Religiously diverse communities have a unique opportunity to promote vaccine trust and access – a national imperative which will increase vaccine uptake and save lives across the country,says IFYC founder, Eboo Patel

Based on recent U.S. census data, Kakwenya’s generation – Gen Z – is the least religious of all major generations right now. Approximately one-third of all Gen Z individuals claim to have “no religion” with others claiming to be non-believers altogether.

Bridge Builders recognizes this and leans into the work of talking to college students about their values and beliefs in an embracing, inclusive way by leveraging an interfaith appreciation for all belief systems.

“Through Bridge Builders, I’ve learned so much. Not just about the COVID-19 vaccine, but about the value of trust-building, dignity and respect,” Kakwenya says. “I was raised as a Christian and while my beliefs are a big part of why I want to help others, I now have a deeper appreciation for the many beliefs in the world and all of the types of people that come with them.”

This inclusive foundational training is what drives Bridge Builders’ success.

The goal of the “Faith in the Vaccine” clinics is to connect with pieces of our community that have been traditionally underserved and misunderstood. These populations – for example, Black transgender individuals – have lower vaccination rates on the whole vs. all Black individuals or the local community average. As a group, they also possess a diverse variety of belief systems and to reach them, student interns must first learn how to find common ground.

To do so, Bridge Builders’ interns are first challenged to think about their identities, beliefs, and backgrounds. They are then asked to tie those to pockets of the Charlotte community they feel they might be best positioned to reach. With the help of the Bridge Builders leadership team, interns contact community leaders at churches, community centers, and community facilities (such as sports complexes) to build common ground and trust, ultimately proposing a partnership.

The main goal is to meet unvaccinated individuals where they already are to remove access, transportation, and scheduling barriers. Then, the more difficult relational work of 1:1 conversations begins. 

“I’ve learned how to observe and listen more, which data to use when speaking to people about the COVID-19 vaccine and in what stage of the conversation. I’ve learned how to find common ground and that the best thing I can do is to enlighten people, not force information on them,” Kakwenya says. 

Success, Impact and the Road Ahead

Per the Bridge Builders leadership team, each “Faith in the Vaccine” clinic is seeing a success rate of anywhere from 15 to 75 individuals accepting the vaccine. While on the surface, this may not seem like a massive number, with multiple clinics hosted each weekend, those tallies can quickly add up.

Some come to the table grateful to finally have easy access, others change their minds after speaking to a student intern like Jackson Kakwenya. Incentives matter, too. Bridge Builders provides VISA gift cards at each clinic ranging from $25 – $100, a difference-making amount for many in these underserved communities.

Dr. Passaretti stands grateful for the work Jackson Kakwenya, his peers, Bridge Builders, and so many other organizations are doing to support a more vaccinated – and ultimately safer – North Carolina.

“Every vaccine given matters. We are in the hard work phase right now. Operationalizing the vaccine and getting it out to “the faithful” in early phases was not as challenging as where we are today. The best thing we can do right now is to be out in the community, connecting with others to understand, remove barriers and build trust,” Dr. Passaretti notes.

We still have a long ways to go with new data coming to the fore every day.

Childhood vaccines are now available and behind them, a host of questions all their own. Pregnant women still remain one of the most unvaccinated populations on the whole and new mothers are beginning to occupy more and more beds at Atrium and other local hospitals.

With a new $1 million grant from The Duke Endowment in tow, Bridge Builders looks forward to expanding its reach in 2022 with 20 new “Faith in the Vaccine” higher education campus teams across both North and South Carolina. This work will reach new underserved pockets in urban, rural, and industrial areas and is set to begin in January. Funding will take this program through next August.

While the road ahead will not be without trials, it will perhaps be a bit smoother because of people like Jackson Kakwenya, Dr. Passaretti, and Bridge Builders Carolinas.

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