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Hairstylists Are 'The Key' To Getting More Americans Vaccinated

Calvin Gough, a 54-year-old from Washington, D.C., gets his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine while sitting in a barber chair. (Dominique Maria Bonessi/WAMU)
Calvin Gough, a 54-year-old from Washington, D.C., gets his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine while sitting in a barber chair. (Dominique Maria Bonessi/WAMU)

On a Monday afternoon, Katrina Randolph, owner of Tre Shadez Hair Studio in Capitol Heights, Maryland, trades in her hairstylists for nurses and transforms her salon into a COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

Randolph says she's excited to help her customers and others in the community get vaccinated. With more than 20 years in the business and customers driving from as far as Virginia Beach to her salon, Randolph explains how she's been able to build a loyal clientele base.

"Just being a professional, just being honest, just being timely. Just being able to have a conversation with them and make them feel comfortable when they're in your chair," Randolph says.

It's those conversations with customers in her chair that inspired a partnership with Stephen Thomas, the director of the Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland.

"One of the beautiful things about the barbershop and the beauty salon is that there's no topic off-limits. It's a place of enormous — I call it — sacred space where all conversations are listened to with dignity and respect. And you can have vigorous, passionate disagreements," Thomas says. "So what better place to be to build trust than to go where people already have it."

Thomas founded the HAIR program — Health Advocates In-Reach and Research — while working with barbershops in Pittsburgh around 2005 to spread awareness for colorectal cancer screenings to a population of mostly Brown and Black people who have a history of mistrust with the health care system. He then brought the program to the University of Maryland in 2010.

"It took a pandemic to truly bring the barbershop health network from the margins to the mainstream," Thomas says.

The predominantly-Black county of Prince George's, where the program is based, was the worst hit in Maryland with more than 85,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 1,500 deaths. With the second largest population in the state, the county has a little less than 42% of residents fully vaccinated.

Randolph says her ability to make her customers feel comfortable and desire to help others led her to work with Thomas.

"If I could save a village, I definitely would," Randolph says. "A lot of my clients, when we talk about these health disparities, I realize it’s a lot of mistrust in the health care system at large. So that’s why I think it’s great to have this opportunity to be able to talk to them about [it]."

Around 3 p.m., Randolph's husband, Chris Randolph, is greeting customers while DJing the event outside the salon. There are about 25 pre-scheduled appointments today. And another 50 to 100 doses of either the two-dose Pfizer or the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine available for any walkups.

Inside, workers with a local health system check-in patients like 54-year-old Washington D.C. resident Calvin Gough and escort them to a swiveling barber chair. A nurse rubs an alcohol wipe on a small area of Gough's arm and gives him a quick jab. She then guides him to an observation area to wait 15 minutes.

Gough says uncertainty about the vaccine led him to wait a while to get it, but his desire to see friends again convinced him to finally get vaccinated.

"At the end of this month, I'll be hanging out with a much, much, much older friend of mine, and I cannot have it on my conscience if anything bad were to happen to her or her family," Gough says with a sigh.

Gough adds that his 20-plus year friendship with Chris Randolph helped him get access to the vaccine.

"I told him about my situation about the event I'm about to go to and he was like, 'yeah you know my wife is about to set up something at the shop,' " Gough says.

Chris Randolph says he was shocked that Gough and some of his other friends hadn’t gotten vaccinated yet.

"I was like 'are you kidding me?' " Chris Randolph says. "I don't know why they were putting it off because I was the direct link to them, all the inhibitions went away."

When the pandemic first started, Chris Randolph says he was a "staunch naysayer" who didn't believe the pandemic was real and vowed he wouldn't get the vaccine when available. But when a 54-year-old friend died within a week of Thanksgiving, he says, "it was an awakening."

"I'm about to turn 50," he says. "Just to see him lying there it was an eye-opener for me. I was like, ‘you know what, I'm getting the vaccine no questions asked, my family is getting vaccinated, I can't play with this.’ "

Chris Randolph has now joined his wife as a staunch advocate for the vaccine.

"Get yourself well informed, make your own decision, but think about yourself and just think about the other people around you. This is serious," he says.

A little while later, 12-year-old Jayla Hill accompanied by her mom Bobbie Monagan just happened to be at the post office across the street when they saw the pop-up vaccination clinic. Monagan already got her vaccine but had been unsuccessful in trying to make an appointment at a local pharmacy for Jayla and her twin brother.

"I think it's easy for us to just walk in and get the vaccine done as opposed to having to make an appointment and wait. So, we were able to get it done today and I think that's just awesome," Monagan says.

In less than 30 minutes, workers with Luminis Health check Jayla in, escort her to a swiveling barber chair, give her a quick jab, and guide her to an observation area to wait 15 minutes. Once fully vaccinated Jayla says she's looking forward to in-person school, seeing her friends again, and "playing outside without having to wear a mask."

Monagan says she intends to bring Jayla's brother back later this afternoon for his vaccine.

The barbershop and salon vaccination clinic model has been so successful, Stephen Thomas has received calls from the White House to scale it up across the U.S.

At least 200 hairstylists from around the country will be trained by Thomas and Randolph this week on how to dispel COVID myths and host their own vaccination events.

"[Salon and barbershop owners] are the keys, they are the influencers…because they set the tone for everybody else in that space," Thomas says. "By reaching [unvaccinated people] here we can reach an entire population that we think right now is at the 'hell no' wall."

Thomas adds while many teenagers are getting vaccinated, he says many adults are still saying 'hell no' to the vaccine for all kinds of reasons.

"This is a place where you cannot shame, not blame, let me hear your concerns and let’s talk about it," he says.

Katrina Randolph says her biggest piece of advice to her customers in trying to rebuild trust in the healthcare system is finding factual information about the vaccine.

"If you're going to take this information and make decisions for your life with it, make sure you're going to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website] on a regular basis, making sure that you're talking to the health care professionals. That you're not just listening to hearsay," Katrina says.

Getting vaccines into arms one barber or salon shop conversation at a time with the goal of getting to 70% of Americans with one dose of the vaccine by July 4th. And long after COVID vaccines have become normalized, Thomas says he hopes health advocacy at hair salons and barbershops can become a regular occurrence.

"If you can come into a barbershop and a beauty salon and deliver a lifesaving vaccine, well then come back to do the diabetes test, the colon cancer screening, and the prostate cancer screening," he says while listing off some of the diseases that were exacerbated by the coronavirus. "Nobody wants to go back to a normal where Black people live sicker and die younger."

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.