Stephen B. Thomas, the director of the Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland, considers himself an eternal optimist. When he reflects on the devastating pandemic that has been raging for the past three years, he chooses to focus less on what the world has lost and more on what it has gained: potent antiviral drugs, powerful vaccines, and, most important, unprecedented collaborations among clinicians, academics, and community leaders that helped get those lifesaving resources to many of the people who needed them most. But when Thomas, whose efforts during the pandemic helped transform more than 1,000 Black barbershops and salons into COVID-vaccine clinics, looks ahead to the next few months, he worries that momentum will start to fizzle out—or, even worse, that it will go into reverse.
This week, the Biden administration announced that it would allow the public-health-emergency declaration over COVID-19 to expire in May—a transition that’s expected to put shots, treatments, tests, and other types of care more out of reach of millions of Americans, especially those who are uninsured. The move has been a long time coming, but for community leaders such as Thomas, whose vaccine-outreach project, Shots at the Shop, has depended on emergency funds and White House support, the transition could mean the imperilment of a local infrastructure that he and his colleagues have been building for years. It shouldn’t have been inevitable, he told me, that community vaccination efforts would end up on the chopping block. “A silver lining of the pandemic was the realization that hyperlocal strategies work,” he said. “Now we’re seeing the erosion of that.”
I called Thomas this week to discuss how the emergency declaration allowed his team to mobilize resources for outreach efforts—and what may happen in the coming months as the nation attempts to pivot back to normalcy.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Katherine J. Wu: Tell me about the genesis of Shots at the Shop.
Stephen B. Thomas: We started our work with barbershops and beauty salons in 2014. It’s called HAIR: Health Advocates In-Reach and Research. Our focus was on colorectal-cancer screening. We brought medical professionals—gastroenterologists and others—into the shop, recognizing that Black people in particular were dying from colon cancer at rates that were just unacceptable but were potentially preventable with early diagnosis and appropriate screening.
Now, if I can talk to you about colonoscopy, I could probably talk to you about anything. In 2019, we held a national health conference for barbers and stylists. They all came from around the country to talk about different areas of health and chronic disease: prostate cancer, breast cancer, others. We brought them all together to talk about how we can address health disparities and get more agency and visibility to this new frontline workforce.
When the pandemic hit, all the plans that came out of the national conference were on hold. But we continued our efforts in the barbershops. We started a Zoom town hall. And we started seeing misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic being disseminated in our shops, and there were no countermeasures.
We got picked up on the national media, and then we got the endorsement of the White House. And that’s when we launched Shots at the Shop. We had 1,000 shops signed up in I’d say less than 90 days.
Wu: Why do you think Shots at the Shop was so successful? What was the network doing differently from other vaccine-outreach efforts that spoke directly to Black and brown communities?
Thomas: If you came to any of our clinics, it didn’t feel like you were coming into a clinic or a hospital. It felt like you were coming to a family reunion. We had a DJ spinning music. We had catered food. We had a festive environment. Some people showed up hesitant, and some of them left hesitant but fascinated. We didn’t have to change their worldview. But we treated them with dignity and respect. We weren’t telling them they’re stupid and don’t understand science.
And the model worked. It worked so well that even the health professionals were extremely pleased, because now all they had to do was show up with the vaccine, and the arms were ready for needles.
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The barbers and stylists saw themselves as doing health-related things anyway. They had always seen themselves as doing more than just cutting hair. No self-respecting Black barber is going to say, “We’ll get you in and out in 10 minutes.” It doesn’t matter how much hair you have: You’re gonna be in there for half a day.
Wu: How big of a difference do you think your network’s outreach efforts made in narrowing the racial gaps in COVID vaccination?
Thomas: Attribution is always difficult, and success has many mothers. So I will say this to you: I have no doubt that we made a huge difference. With a disease like COVID, you can’t afford to have any pocket unprotected, and we were vaccinating people who would otherwise have never been vaccinated. We were dealing with people at the “hell no” wall.
We were also vaccinating people who were homeless. They were treated with dignity and respect. At some of our shops, we did a coat drive and a shoe drive. And we had dentists providing us with oral-health supplies: toothbrush, floss, paste, and other things. It made a huge difference. When you meet people where they are, you’ve got to meet all their needs.
Wu: How big of a difference did the emergency declaration, and the freeing-up of resources, tools, and funds, make for your team’s outreach efforts?
Thomas: Even with all the work I’ve been doing in the barber shop since 2014, the pandemic got us our first grant from the state. Money flowed. We had resources to go beyond the typical mechanisms. I was able to secure thousands of KN95 masks and distribute them to shops. Same thing with rapid tests. We even sent them Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, a DIY filtration system to clean up indoor air.
Without the emergency declaration, we would still be in the desert screaming for help. The emergency declaration made it possible to get resources through nontraditional channels, and we were doing things that the other systems—the hospital system, the local health department—couldn’t do. We extended their reach to populations that have historically been underserved and distrustful.
Wu: The public-health-emergency declaration hasn’t yet expired. What signs of trouble are you seeing right now?
Thomas: The bridge between the barbershops and the clinical side has been shut down in almost all places, including here in Maryland. I go to the shop and they say to me, “Dr. T, when are we going to have the boosters here?” Then I call my clinical partners, who deliver the shots. Some won’t even answer my phone calls. And when they do, they say, “Oh, we don’t do pop-ups anymore. We don’t do community-outreach clinics anymore, because the grant money’s gone. The staff we hired during the pandemic, they use the pandemic funding—they’re gone.” But people are here; they want the booster. And my clinical partners say, “Send them down to a pharmacy.” Nobody wants to go to a pharmacy.
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You can’t see me, so you can’t see the smoke still coming out of my ears. But it hurts. We got them to trust. If you abandon the community now, it will simply reinforce the idea that they don’t matter.
Wu: What is the response to this from the communities you’re talking to?
Thomas: It’s “I told you so, they didn’t care about us. I told you, they would leave us with all these other underlying conditions.” You know, it shouldn’t take a pandemic to build trust. But if we lose it now, it will be very, very difficult to build back.
We built a bridge. It worked. Why would you dismantle it? Because that’s exactly what's happening right now. The very infrastructure we created to close the racial gaps in vaccine acceptance is being dismantled. It’s totally unacceptable.
Wu: The emergency declaration was always going to end at some point. Did it have to play out like this?
Thomas: I don’t think so. If you talk to the hospital administrators, they’ll tell you the emergency declaration and the money allowed them to add outreach. And when the money went away, they went back to business as usual. Even though the outreach proved you could actually do a better job. And the misinformation and the disinformation campaign hasn’t stopped. Why would you go back to what doesn’t work?
Wu: What is your team planning for the short and long term, with limited resources?
Thomas: As long as Shots at the Shop can connect clinical partners to access vaccines, we will definitely keep that going.
Nobody wants to go back to normal. So many of our barbers and stylists feel like they’re on their own. I’m doing my best to supply them with KN95 masks and rapid tests. We have kept the conversation going on our every-other-week Zoom town hall. We just launched a podcast. We put out some of our stories in the form of a graphic novel, The Barbershop Storybook. And we’re trying to launch a national association for barbers and stylists, called Barbers and Stylists United for Health.
The pandemic resulted in a mobilization of innovation, a recognition of the intelligence at the community level, the recognition that you need to culturally tailor your strategy. We need to keep those relationships intact. Because this is not the last time we’re going to see a pandemic even in our lifetime. I’m doing my best to knock on doors to continue to put our proposals out there. Hopefully, people will realize that reaching Black and Hispanic communities is worth sustaining.