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Miss. Community Health Center Is Crucial To Vaccinating Rural Residents

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The next stop for the Biden administration in getting people vaccinated against the coronavirus involves help from community health centers that serve many rural and low-income communities. Shalina Chatlani of Gulf States Newsroom takes us to one in Mississippi.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: On the northwest border of Mississippi, where the river nourishes rich and green Delta farmland, sits a small town called Mound Bayou. Walking around, you mostly see rundown banks, hotels and gas stations that were once vibrant but now stand broken on the sides of dirt roads. This town was founded by formerly enslaved people, many of whom became farmers. Mitch Williams grew up on a farm here in the 1930s. He says he spent long days working the soil with his hands.

MITCH WILLIAMS: We work from sun to sun. If you would cut yourself, they wouldn't put no sutures in, no stitches in. You wrapped it up and kept going.

CHATLANI: Health care across the Mississippi Delta was sparse, and much of it was segregated - that is, until a new clinic opened in the 1960s called the Delta Health Center. It was for all residents and free. Williams, who is 85, was one of the first patients.

WILLIAMS: They were seeing patients in the local churches. They had mobile units. I had never seen that kind of comprehensive care.

CHATLANI: Today, the Delta Health Center is one of about 1,400 community health centers across the country that gets federal funding to care for patients regardless of their ability to pay. In the '60s, in Mound Bayou and the surrounding areas, many people didn't have clean drinking water or indoor plumbing. Delta Health Center became part of the civil rights movement. The center helps people in poverty insulate their homes. Doctors and staffers built outhouses and provided food for the hungry.

ROBERT SMITH: The community health center movement was the conduit for physicians all over this country who believe that all people have a right to health care.

CHATLANI: Dr. Robert Smith is a physician and a civil rights leader. Half a century later, Black Southerners are still confronting barriers to health. Nadia Bethley is a Delta Health Center clinical psychologist.

NADIA BETHLEY: We have a lot of chronic health conditions here, particularly concentrated in the Mississippi Delta, that lead to higher rates of complications and death with COVID. And it's been tough.

CHATLANI: Delta Health Center has grown from being housed in trailers in Mound Bayou to 17 clinics across five counties. During the pandemic, many other places had trouble reaching Black Americans, but Delta vaccinated over 5,500 patients, most of them Black.

BETHLEY: We don't have the National Guard, you know, lining up out here, running our site. It's the people who work here.

CHATLANI: The Mississippi Department of Health says it's been prioritizing community health centers since the beginning of the vaccine rollout. But Delta Health CEO John Fairman says it was only receiving a couple hundred doses a week early on. It wasn't until early March that they started to get more consistent supply.

JOHN FAIRMAN: Many states would be much further ahead had they utilized community health centers from the very beginning.

CHATLANI: Dr. Robert Smith, the civil rights leader, agrees. He says equal access to care in rural communities is just as critical during this global health crisis as it was in the '60s.

SMITH: When health care improves for Blacks, it will improve for all Americans.

CHATLANI: For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani in Mound Bayou, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BLACK KEYS SONG, "COME ON AND GO WITH ME")

INSKEEP: Shalina's story comes from NPR's partnership with the Gulf States Newsroom and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.