Get Dr. Cheryl Holder talking about COVID-19 and you’ll quickly realize she’s not one to be easily surprised. Or intimidated. Or daunted by the task of providing medical care to the most vulnerable in the face of a global health crisis. She says with a chuckle: “I always tell people—Hashtag, Not My First Pandemic!”
Holder is Interim Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity and Community Initiatives at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, president of the James Wilson Bridges MD Medical Society, the local chapter of the country’s oldest Black medical society, and a doctor of internal medicine firmly planted at the frontlines of the fight against AIDS. These days, however, her focus is squarely on the coronavirus pandemic, specifically its disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable in Miami’s Black community, where there are higher death and hospitalization rates than in white communities but where the vaccine has lagged and reached far fewer.
A recipient of one of various Health Foundation of South Florida grants made last year to address racial and ethnic disparities unleashed by the virus, Holder along with two other healthcare leaders in their own rite—Phyllis Rhymes Johnson and Patrise Tyson, both officers of the Black Nurses Association Miami chapter—joined forces to orchestrate an effort to reach Black Miamians with COVID resources and information using a unique approach.
STEEPED IN HISTORY & FAITH
Their project, called Keeping The Faith, set out to bring COVID education, protective supplies like masks and hand sanitizers, testing and vaccine information to the Black community through faith-based institutions and houses of worship. While it’s been lauded as innovative, Holder says their idea is actually deeply rooted in history. “The evidence has long shown that any public health effort requires trusted messengers,” she said. “And if you’re looking for a trusted messenger in the Black community, you have to start by going to where the community has gone for hundreds of years in search of refuge: church.”
Holder, Rhymes Johnson and Tyson launched the program in September 2020 and have since worked with more than 20 Miami-Dade faith-based institutions, held 11 pop-up testing events and provided tests to more than 1,200 residents. They have also hosted countless community Zoom meetings, produced YouTube videos and hit the local radio airwaves, all part of a mission to debunk myths and misinformation about the pandemic and the vaccine, arming people with facts and science instead.
In addition, each house of worship they work with is paired with a healthcare team consisting of a nurse, a community health worker and a medical student. Those teams not only helped the churches implement safe reopening plans in late 2020, but they continue to provide direct support to parishioners, securing doctor appointments, medications, food and anything else they need. In a community where people too often don’t have access to basic primary care, having assistance just a phone call away has proven to be a game-changer—and a lifesaver.
One of the keys to their success, all three say, is having coalesced their respective organizations along with a number of other groups around the cause, including the Haitian American Nursing Association, the Haitian American Faith Based Network, the Haitian American Coalition and the local chapter of the Student National Medical Association.