By Alexandra Becker
On Wednesday, March 31, Lesa Jackson sat in a large room at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Southwest Houston. Her arm felt slightly sore, but she was elated. After months of waiting, she had finally received her first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I am so happy it’s finally my turn,” 58-year-old Jackson said. “I help take care of my grandkids and I want to make sure I stay healthy and also keep them safe, too. I finally have peace of mind—it’s a great feeling.”
Jackson was one of nearly 1,600 individuals who received their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany on March 31 and April 1, 2021. The clinic, run by Memorial Hermann Health System in partnership with Epiphany Community Health Outreach Services (ECHOS), was part of Memorial Hermann’s ongoing efforts to make the vaccine more accessible to some of Greater Houston’s hardest hit zip codes and demographics. Individuals who were vaccinated over the two-day period came back in late April to receive their second doses; Jackson got hers on April 21.
“This particular event—and events like this—are a way to provide outreach to a community to make sure the vaccine is given out equitably,” said Cathy Moore, executive director of ECHOS. “A lot of our families wouldn’t necessarily go to a hospital or to a vaccine clinic at NRG because they may not be comfortable because of language barriers or immigration status. There are other barriers, too—many of our clients are not computer literate and would have trouble with the online registration form, and some simply don’t have transportation. However, they know ECHOS and they trust our organization, and this church is a safe space—it’s a sacred space. That’s why this partnership is key to these efforts; together, we can take away as many of these barriers as possible.”
ECHOS is a nonprofit organization that works to connect people in need with health, social and educational resources that can improve their lives. In 2001, the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany opened ECHOS to provide health and social services to the growing population of immigrants and refugees living in Southwest Houston. In addition to email and other standard methods of communication, ECHOS and their community partners reached out to clients through phone calls, flyers, and in-person conversations when delivering services to help ensure that those without Internet access had the opportunity to be vaccinated at the event.
This collaboration between Memorial Hermann and ECHOS epitomizes the kind of partnerships that are critical for improving the overall health of vulnerable communities, particularly those with large numbers of uninsured and underinsured families, explained Carol Paret, chief community health officer at Memorial Hermann. Paret and her team lead the system’s community health efforts with a focus on expanding access not just to health care, but also to resources that impact social determinants of health as a whole.
“Memorial Hermann’s vision is to create healthier communities, but we cannot accomplish that through providing health care alone,” Paret said. “Health care is only 20 percent of the picture. We have to look upstream, address factors that drive health from a broader perspective, and focus on our collaborative work where we can leverage our power as an anchor institution while embedding ourselves in communities through our partnerships.”
Paret said that to truly advance the health of some of Greater Houston’s most vulnerable communities, Memorial Hermann is focusing on issues that are not always directly related to clinical care, including access, emotional wellbeing, food as health, and exercise as medicine. These pillars, she said, are just as important as providing health services when it comes to lasting impact.
“We know that health is not just about traditional health care,” Paret said. “To really address the needs of people in our communities, we have to look at socioeconomic factors, people’s physical environments and health behaviors as well.”
Memorial Hermann’s Health Centers for Schools, Community Resource Centers, and efforts around community engagement and improvement initiatives fall under this umbrella. The Health Centers for Schools is a collaboration with school districts to keep children healthy so that they can remain in school and learn, which can impact their academic achievement and, ultimately, their future. Community Health Workers help close gaps in care and services, which improve overall health, while Memorial Hermann’s Community Resource Centers reduce the impact of social determinants of health barriers by bridging health care with social services.
“We are always looking at what we, as a large health system, can do,” Paret said. “How can we use our voice? How can we use our advocacy and our business model and strategies to really improve the health of Houston?”
She added that neighbors who live just 20 minutes apart could potentially live 20 years less due to reduced access to parks, walkable sidewalks, secure family and social support, fresh fruits and vegetables, educational opportunities, and stable employment.
“A person’s zip code can be a better predictor of their health than their genetic code,” Paret said. “We’re working to change that.”