Adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood made drive-through anointing and prayer available Dec. 30-31. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Barbershops and beauty salons that cater to African Americans are known as places where all kinds of information — serious, hilarious and erroneous — is disseminated.

That is why Dr. Bruce Randolph, medical director of the Shelby County Health Department, is thinking about using these gathering spots, along with churches, as vehicles to share accurate information about the COVID-19 vaccines. 

He sees them as a corps of messengers already rooted in the community.

“I plan to launch a campaign with hair care providers, barbers, and ministers to give the facts about the vaccine,” said Randolph. “These are people who are trusted and confided in. They can help to disperse real answers to questions people have (about the COVID vaccines and provide) answers grounded in medical research and factual truth.”

Several months before COVID-19 vaccines were available, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 72 percent of Americans would “probably or definitely” get a coronavirus vaccination.

Among African Americans who participated in the survey, that figure dropped to 54 percent. 

While the percentage of anti-vaccine individuals (anti-vaxers) may vary from region to region, Shelby County officials have concluded that this sentiment is a concerning issue among local African-American residents.

“Like so many other places, a higher percentage of African Americans not only are contracting the disease, the death toll is higher in this community,” said Randolph. “If there is a widespread determination to not take the vaccine when it becomes available, this is going to be a huge problem.”

Randolph has consistently said during COVID-19 Joint Task Force updates that “herd immunity” is critical to Shelby County fully opening back up and returning to some degree of normalcy.

Herd immunity is achieved when 70-75 percent of the population in a certain area is vaccinated. 

Randolph is convinced that this general mistrust of the healthcare system must be countered with truth. That is why he is considering forming the “corps.”

Historically, ministers in the African-American community have been important purveyors of information. Enlisting the help of beauty and barber salon professionals is a new twist on a tried-and-true, great idea. 

“I believe that initiating the help of stakeholders and influencers in the African- American community will have a tremendous impact on those reluctant to take the vaccine,” said Randolph. “Providers of beauty and barber services have traditionally offered a safe place where people feel free to discuss what’s going on in their lives.”

Aserlean “Lynn” Sanders (Courtesy photo)

Aserlean “Lynn” Sanders, proprietor of Lynn’s Got It Going On Beauty Salon and Hair Replacement Studio in Whitehaven, thinks “Dr. Randolph might be on to something.”

She continued, “Many of my clients are well-known, prominent men in our community. Not from any of them, but I’ve heard people say that the vaccine is a way to kill off the black community.

“People generally don’t have a good feeling about anything related to healthcare. People are afraid. So, I think Dr. Randolph is on the right track. Hair dressers and salon employees and owners talk to a lot of people. We could really tell people what is real and what isn’t.”

Sanders said her hair replacement clients are men who are very influential in the city. She has had conversations with them about the vaccine. They are already telling people that they should be sure and get the vaccine when it becomes available, Sanders said.

“Just the other day, I had a client in,” said Sanders. “I would not mention his name to protect his privacy, but he said, ‘Lynn, we have had measles, chicken pox, mumps, small pox. This virus is just like those diseases. The way we got over them was through vaccination. We have to take that vaccine.’ I agree with him, and I think we can help carry that message.”

Although Randolph has not designated a date to enlist the help of beauty and barber service providers, he said the effort probably would consist of a series of virtual calls on ZOOM, where questions could be answered so that right information is being disseminated to the community.

“Beauty salons and barber shops could be great community sites where people are given the right information about taking the vaccine,” said Randolph. “We want everyone in Shelby County to be protected from the virus. 

“The black community continues to be hit the hardest with higher infection numbers and deaths. Giving people the facts about what the vaccine can do will save lives. It’s safe and it’s necessary. Beauty and barber service providers will be important in conveying that message.”