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Local Barbershops And Salons Step Up To Cut COVID Short

Dina Tillman, owner of Hello Bonita Hair Salon in Pigtown. Credit: Kaiser Permanente
Dina Tillman, owner of Hello Bonita Hair Salon in Pigtown. Credit: Kaiser Permanente

The Maryland Department of Health is tapping into a new resource to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates: hair salons and barber shops.

Kaiser Permanente’s “Good Health & Great Hair” program launched in 2016 to reduce health disparities in West Baltimore by bringing clinical and social services to local hair salons and barber shops.

Now, these businesses are offering COVID vaccine education in Baltimore City, as well as in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. In some cases, they’ll also be hosting vaccine clinics.

The hope is that people will develop vaccine confidence through conversations with a hairdresser or barber they trust.

Dina Rodriguez Tillman is the owner of Hello Bonita, a hair salon located in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood. Tillman was introduced to Good Health & Great Hair before the pandemic.

“A lot of people in my community, the Latino community, they're undocumented, and they don't come out and they're afraid to go to their doctors,” Tillman said. “But we've been so greatly impacted by this pandemic.”

To become vaccine educators, hair salon and barber shop owners like Tillman undergo a multi-part training curriculum with physicians at Kaiser Permanente.

Before COVID, residents could stop by Hello Bonita for services like blood pressure screenings and flu shots. Tillman said such services will continue.

“It's so much deeper than just the COVID vaccine shot. It’s about making sure that people are taking care of themselves,” she said. “Mentally, physically.”

Tillman said she hopes her neighbors, particularly Latino residents, will stop by Hello Bonita to take care of their hair, and more importantly, their health.

Getting a vaccine, Tillman said, can save them the financial burden of medical bills. The vaccine doesn’t guarantee full protection from COVID, but it is very effective against severe illness.

“Our healthcare system, it's expensive,” she said. “Come down and just get a vaccine to make sure that you're not in a position where you're being hospitalized. It’s just so important.”

Celeste James, Executive Director of Community Health at Kaiser Permanente, said she hopes that by providing vaccine education, Good Health & Great Hair will alleviate the disproportionate toll COVID has taken on communities of color.

“We're going to be empathetic, we're going to be understanding, we're going to listen and we're going to inform,” she said.

James announced Kaiser’s partnership with the state health department Friday morning in front of Hello Bonita, which hosted vaccinations.

James was joined by doctors and city and health officials, including Dr. Mark Martin, the deputy director of the health department's Office of Minority Health.

“This is one tool in the toolbox. And we understand through the pandemic, we had to think outside of the box,” Martin said.

As a physician at Kaiser, Good Health & Great Hair ambassador Dr. Eddye Bullock has witnessed health disparities during the pandemic firsthand.

Recent federal data indicates that last year, the life expectancy for Black and Latino Americans dropped by about three years.

“We’re at a pivotal point in this pandemic,” Bullock said. “Variants are spreading and almost everyone who is hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 is unvaccinated.”

Nearly half of Baltimore City residents still have not received a single dose of the vaccine.

Baltimore City Councilwoman and Pigtown resident Phylicia Porter said it is especially critical now to make sure every resident has easy access to the COVID vaccine. The Delta variant has contributed to a rise in positivity rates in Maryland and across the country.

“This truly is a matter of life and death for many people,” Porter said.

Sarah Y. Kim is WYPR’s health and housing reporter. Kim is WYPR's Report for America corps member, and Anthony Brandon Fellow. Kim joined WYPR as a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. Now in her second year as an RFA corps member, Kim is based in Baltimore City.