After vaccinating thousands against Covid-19, this CNN Hero is fighting inequity in the medical system
By Kathleen Toner, CNN
(CNN) -- As Covid-19 infection rates and restrictions are waning in some places and a variant is surging in others, it's difficult to understand where we are in the pandemic.
But two years ago, the situation was clear: for many people, coronavirus had brought the world to a stop. That's when pediatric surgeon Dr. Ala Stanford sprang into action, bringing Covid-19 testing to Black and Brown communities in Philadelphia that were hard hit by the virus.
In the months that followed, Stanford brought testing and vaccines to more than 75,000 people through her nonprofit Black Doctors Covid-19 Consortium. And as she worked to help underresourced communities weather the pandemic, she diagnosed an even greater problem.
"We were seeing folks that hadn't seen a doctor in a decade," said Stanford, who was honored as a Top 10 CNN Hero last year. "We were just literally putting a Band-Aid to a much bigger problem with health inequities and health disparities."
It's well-documented that Black and Brown communities have suffered greater hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 for a host of reasons, including higher risk factors for exposure and a higher risk of severe disease.
But lack of accessible and affordable health care is a key factor that leads to worse health outcomes for people of color. In particular, lack of outpatient care, like annual checkups and doctor's visits, can play a critical role in preventing health issues.
This larger, systemic issue is what Stanford is trying to remedy.
In November, she began seeing patients at the Dr. Ala Stanford Center for Health Equity, her new facility in north Philadelphia. This multi-disciplinary clinic offers services ranging from primary care and mental health, diagnostic testing like EKGs and mammograms and, of course, Covid testing and vaccinations.
"We take care of newborns through grandma and grandpa," she said. "And that is the next step ... wanting to not just save lives, but really impact an entire lifetime with people."
Located on the grounds of Deliverance Evangelistic Church, in an area that once housed a day care center, the space underwent a massive renovation. The center now includes exam rooms, consultation areas, a children's play space, even a fish tank. Most importantly, it provides care to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
"If you have insurance, we run it," Stanford said. "If you don't have insurance, we help you get (it). And if you don't have anything, you're not going to be turned away."
This fall, as the coronavirus seemed to recede into the background, Stanford was excited to switch gears to focus on this broader health mission. But the Omicron variant of the virus changed her plans.
"After Christmas, there were so many people sick, literally wrapped around this building to get Covid tested. The positivity rate was 45%" she said. "So, we had to stop primary care and just focus on testing and vaccination."
Yet, she and her team still figured out a way to provide brief wellness checks with each vaccination.
"You come in for a shot and you see your vital signs are out of whack -- you might say 'Did you know you have high blood pressure?' or 'Did you take your medication today?'" Stanford said.
And in early January, when Stanford realized that Covid rates were rising in children and young people, she added another approach.
"In a public health crisis, you go to the people. And the kids are primarily in school, so that's what I pushed for," she said.
Since then, Stanford's team has worked with FEMA to hold nearly 20 vaccination clinics at schools in and around Philadelphia. She says in some of them, they have doubled the vaccination rates among students. Her group also still offers vaccinations and testing throughout the community at police departments and mass transit SEPTA stations.
Two years later, Stanford's surgical practice is still on hold. While she admits to missing the operating room at times, she knows that the work she is doing now is making a difference on a much larger scale.
"What we've done has touched over 100,000 lives. And that refuels me," she said. "The need here right now is so great. I feel that this is where I'm supposed to be."
Want to get involved? Check out the Black Doctors Covid-19 Consortium website and see how to help.
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