Abdikhadar Shire, executive director of AK Health, puts his coat back on after getting his COVID-19 vaccine on Saturday at the B Street clinic in Lewiston. Amy Morgan, St. Mary’s medical assistant finishes up Shire’s paperwork on the right. Shire has been an active proponent of encouraging the local immigrant community to embrace the vaccine.  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Ever since the first COVID-19 vaccines became available, Abdikhadar Shire has been urging people to get their shot when the time came.

Shire is executive director of the Lewiston nonprofit AK Health and Social Services, which throughout the past year has been leading a community wide effort to educate the public on COVID-19, and provide services to a diverse community that has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Shire, 31, has attended religious services, hosted Zoom events and produced a series of educational videos touting the safety and efficacy of vaccines, which were translated into several languages.

So, when he finally received his first vaccine dose at the B Street Clinic on Saturday, he wanted as many people as possible to see that he was following through.

The organization has been a key piece of a broader effort to get vaccines to vulnerable communities, especially as Androscoggin County continues to lag the rest of the state in vaccination rates.

AK Health has received funding from the state to conduct the effort.

It has also been addressing vaccine hesitancy, which Shire said has been caused by a combination of cultural factors, including religious beliefs and misinformation, on par with what has been seen across the country.

But, he said, the recent effort has been effective.

“It’s working, it is,” he said.

Shire said some initial hesitancy was tied to religious concerns among Muslims, including whether pork-derived gelatin was used in the vaccines. Gelatin has been widely used as a stabilizer in vaccines but several producers, including Pfizer and Moderna, have said pork products are not part of the COVID vaccines.

Staff and volunteers from AK Health & Social Services stand outside their Main Street office sporting T-shirts with bright green lettering that say “Vaccines save lives” translated into several languages. Submitted photo

Shire said recent communications between local religious leaders and the public have shared fact sheets on each vaccine, and translated them into several languages. AK Health has also been posting videos on its website showing local imams receiving their vaccinations, and talking about the process.

According to an Associated Press article from December 2020, the majority consensus from past debates over pork gelatin use in other types of vaccines is that it is permissible under Islamic law, as “greater harm” would occur if the vaccines weren’t used.

Concerns tied to religion have also come from the Catholic Church, which urged its followers last week to avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if possible due to its use of lab-grown cells that descend from cells from the tissue of aborted fetuses.

During the height of the pandemic last year, AK Health’s outreach focused on education on masking and social distancing. The organization pivoted many of its services in response to the pandemic, including workforce development for those who lost work, and education and literacy for students struggling with remote or hybrid learning.

AK Health has six employees, and heavily relies on volunteers, Shire said.

By the end of 2020, the organization placed some 200 people in jobs, the majority at Westbrook-based Abbot Laboratories, which last year began hiring 1,200 workers to help ramp up production of its rapid-result COVID-19 test.

Shire said due to the nature of the work, employees were offered vaccinations, but some opted to wait.

While Shire said there has been some hesitancy among the Black and immigrant communities, he doesn’t believe its driving the low vaccination rates in Androscoggin County. He said a large portion of Lewiston’s new Mainer community is young, and is not yet eligible to receive one.

He added that socioeconomic factors at play in Lewiston’s downtown neighborhoods, including access to transportation, also play a role.

According to the latest NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist survey, there is little difference in the rates of vaccine hesitancy among white and Black Americans. The poll found that 25% of Black respondents and 28% of white respondents said they did not plan to get a shot. The largest subgroup of people who said they did not plan on getting a vaccine, 49%, was those who identified as Republican men.

The effort from AK Health comes as Androscoggin County continues to lag the rest of the state in vaccination rates. This week, the state’s website showed that as of March 10, statewide, 21.8% of Mainers have received their first dose, while in Androscoggin County it was 16.3%, the second lowest of Maine’s 16 counties.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during the Thursday briefing that the CDC is working on getting more vaccine sites in underserved areas, including Lewiston and Western Maine.

The first site in Androscoggin County, at the Auburn Mall, is set to open Wednesday.

“We also recognize Androscoggin is a large county,” Shah said Thursday. “It’s a diverse county. There are different needs there. We’re investigating other sites across the county as well as looking and thinking about ways to bring vaccines to areas of higher need, particularly in the Lewiston area.”

In response to questions about the low vaccination rates and vaccine hesitancy, CDC spokesman Robert Long said Friday the state has been hearing from some Maine residents who were hesitant when first offered a COVID-19 vaccine, “but who now want it. We have vaccinated some of those people and are working to accommodate others.”

He said the state is working to finalize contracts with a number of community-based organizations to provide vaccine support services for underserved communities.

“The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes that these organizations are trusted voices within their communities and critical partners in ensuring that communities receive culturally and linguistically appropriate information about vaccines while reducing barriers to access through assistance with registration and cultural brokering,” he said.

Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer said Friday he and other city officials have been advocating for vaccine accessibility and equity in Lewiston since discussions began.

Cayer said initial conversations about a mass vaccination site in the county included several downtown Lewiston options.

“Once it was clear they were most likely going with the Auburn Mall, I was very clear with the CDC and Central Maine Healthcare that in order for me to support it, we’d expect to see a plan that would address accessibility and equity within our community,” he said.

He said to him, accessibility also means plans that account for isolated seniors or disabled veterans.

Cayer said he was “really pleased” by Shah’s comments during Thursday’s briefing. He said city officials have had several conversations with staff at the B Street Clinic regarding accessibility.

Cayer said he’s also scheduled to produce informational videos that will be translated into multiple languages.

Coleen Elias, CEO of Community Clinical Services, which operates the B Street Clinic, said as a federally qualified health center the clinic is built to serve vulnerable communities, and has established trust in the community. She said cultural brokers on staff have worked with community-based organizations to identify eligible vaccine candidates, and can book appointments for them directly, eliminating potential language barriers with phone hotlines and other means for making vaccine appointments.

Shire said Thursday that he planned to post photos of his Saturday vaccination on social media, as a way to back up what he’s been preaching for the last several weeks. (He qualifies as a health care worker.) He’s spent the last few Fridays standing up in front of small gatherings at a Lewiston mosque, sharing the importance of vaccines.

“I’ve been telling people ‘get vaccinated, get vaccinated’ all the time in my videos,” he said. “Often times, people say things because they have to say things, and they don’t want to do it themselves. So, I just wanted to let them know the next time I talked to them that I got the vaccine too.”

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