Two days before Christmas of 2020, Dr. Jerry Abraham–Director of Vaccines at Kedren Community Health Center in South Los Angeles– was fed up. It had been nearly two weeks since the Pfizer vaccine had received emergency authorization from the FDA, and despite the fact that Kedren was on the verge of closing for the second time because too many of its staff had contracted COVID-19, the community health center had yet to receive a single dose of vaccine from the county.
To add insult to injury, the very day the Pfizer vaccine was authorized he saw that local health giants like Kaiser Permanente, Dignity Health, Cedars-Sinai, and UCLA & USC Medical Centers had the vaccine and made a big show of vaccinating their staff. It would seem the Kedren and their team of majority black and brown healthcare workers– and by extension, the people of their South L.A. community– had been overlooked and forgotten, yet again.
That’s when Dr. Abraham took action. That night he began calling county officials demanding vaccines and inquiring as to why no one had yet to even reach out to him– especially since at that point 1 in 5 residents of South L.A. had contracted the virus.
“The initial vaccine distribution roll-out was a complete hot mess during that time,” Dr. Abraham tells L.A. Focus. “I was incredibly frustrated that the places like South L.A. were getting the most infections but wasn’t where the vaccine was going right away. We were watching wealthy physicians and health care workers who were not even seeing patients at that point getting the shot, and we were like wait, what about the people who are actually on the front lines? So, the way they did the whole thing was botched for a lot of reasons.”
The county’s initial response was apologetic but unsatisfactory, and when a week passed and Kedren still didn’t have the vaccine, Dr. Abraham had to take matters into his own hands. Two days before the New Year’s Eve, Dr. Abraham drove down to the L.A. County Department of Public Health warehouse in person and banged on the door asking for doses of the life-saving vaccine which enabled him to get Kedren’s first fifty doses and vaccinate his staff of nurses. The next day they were able to get another 150 doses, and then 300 after that.
But the early days of Kedren vaccine effort were challenging to put it mildly. Dr. Abraham says that they were receiving such a limited supply of vaccine that they would start each day not knowing how they would get through it.
“Every day was like the miracle of loaves and fishes,” remembers Dr. Abraham. “We were only receiving a few hundred doses a week, but somehow we made it.”
To ensure that every drop of vaccine possible was administered into the arms of his community, Abraham and his team would race from one end of the county to the next picking up vaccines that were about to expire– a routine that they still do to this day. That’s why it infuriated Dr. Abraham when he found out that not all of his fellow medical professionals were handling the situation with the same sense of urgency.
“I’d be on calls with directors from other hospitals and hear them casually mention having to throw out hundreds of doses because they didn’t do what we did and open their doors to the public, because it was too difficult or wasn’t their job. It would bring me to the point of rage!”
To date, the Kedren team has administered an estimated 160,000 doses of vaccine, with a present average of 5,000 daily.
Once Kedren began receiving regular supply of vaccine, Dr. Abraham was able to mobilize his team of nurses, hundreds of volunteers, partners such as the American Red Cross, AmeriCorp, California Volunteers, the International Medical Corps, and all the resources at Kedren’s disposure to move with an urgency that has been quite literally life or death. Currently Kedren’s operation facilities are full of outdoor tents that resemble a military field hospital to optimize the number of people that can come through and receive their shot on a daily basis.
“It’s been a race against time– not a moment to lose, not a drop to spare,” says Abraham so often it has become somewhat of a catch phrase. “We need to get black and brown L.A. vaccinated yesterday. We were dying at higher rates than wealthier zip codes and other skinned people and that was not fair. That’s the disparity that we live with every day.”
Much of Kedren’s success in distributing so many vaccines so quickly is due to the commitment Dr. Abraham has made ensuring that the vaccine is accessible to everyone.
“We quickly gained a lot of attention because we took down every barrier to getting vaccinated,” says Dr. Abraham. “No appointment, no internet, no phone, no car, can’t walk, don’t speak English, no I.D.– no problem. None of those things were going to keep people from getting their vaccines at Kedren.”
Kedren was also one of the first places in the state to pilot vaccine eligibility programs based on zip code and household rather than simply by age.
“When the Governor said seniors were eligible for the vaccine, we knew that was going to be a flawed strategy from the beginning,” says Abraham. “Because now what we saw were rich grandmas and grandpas who had been socially isolated all showing up at Kedren trying to get there shot– but I had not fought to get Beverly Hills vaccinated. I fought to get the people of South L.A. vaccinated. We had told the county from the get-go that they should focus on zip codes and geographic priorities first, and then we begged them to let us pilot a household based strategy where if one person in the home was eligible for the vaccine, everyone in the home could get it. So, we fought for and achieved pilot programs that would end up being policy recommendations and led to our success of increasing the vaccination rates in the black and brown community.”
But word got out that Kedren had the vaccine and was giving it out liberally, which brought in the much reported influx of “vaccine chasers” to their facility. So-called “vaccine chasers “are folks from outside the community that lined up in front of Kedren, waiting all day long in lawn chairs with camping supplies for the chance of getting an unused vaccine at the end of the day which would otherwise expire. Oftentimes white and notably affluent, they could be seen typing away on their laptops and ordering Uber-eats while they waited for the possibility of getting a shot. Local media jumped on the story as the line of white people in front of the South L.A. medical center invoked reminders of the gentrification and vaccine distribution inequity that was happening around the county.
“But while everyone was freaking out about white people lined up outside Kedren, what some of those news stories failed to share was who was getting in and out,” notes Dr. Abraham. “It was always black and brown healthcare workers and the frail and elderly who got their shots first, every day.”
Abraham goes as far as condemning those news stories that painted a false narrative of the vaccine distribution process at Kedren.
“I don’t blame anyone waiting in any line for a lifesaving essential medicine. What I ask is that you wait your turn and help us get people who are eligible in and vaccinated, and we will get to you,” says Abraham adding, “We have from our inception done so much with so little, don’t be surprised that this historically black institution becomes the place where we care for and save all Angelenos lives.”
Founded in 1965 after the Watts riots, Kedren Community Health Center was started by a group of 22 black psychiatrists who came together to create a mental health institution that would serve the needs of the mentally ill population in South L.A. who were continuously excluded by white institutions at that time. Since then, Kedren has expanded on their psychiatric hospital to include a primary care clinic which provides for the general health care needs of the community.
“Kedren is today as it was when it was founded: a city on a hill, a beacon, and a safe harbor for everyone in the community seeking health needs,” says Dr. Abraham. “We’re ‘the little Kedren that could’. It’s ingrained in our DNA to be a go-to resource and that’s what we’ve been during the pandemic crisis when we became a city and county resource for testing and when we picked up the phone and demanded our vaccines. We take pride in being an exemplary role model for equitable vaccine distribution and a model template for the whole nation on achieving health equity.”
And “the little Kedren that could’’ has now caught the attention of the entire country. Along with the national news media coverage Dr. Abraham and Kedren have received from outlets like VICE News and CNN for their valent vaccination efforts, in March Dr. Abraham was invited to go to Washington D.C. to testify in front of the U.S. Senate to share his story about their frontline response to the pandemic.
Locally, Kedren is partnering with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office in launching their “Live, Work, Worship, Play” (LWWP) initiative which is centered around taking the vaccine mobile and integrating the vaccine effort into the community by meeting people where they’re at such as work, schools, churches and community centers. Kedren has also opened a new permanent site in Watts which, through their NiteVax program, is open until midnight daily to expand vaccine availability. The Watts site also functions as a bus terminal where busloads of people from schools, churches, workplaces and housing areas can be brought to receive their shot and conveniently returned to their lives. Kedren is also planning on throwing events for young people with music and festivities including Vaccineland for children, VaxFest for high school ages, and MAXVAX for the millennials and gen z.
“We believe what we are building here is a revitalized healthcare delivery system and we’re laying the groundwork for public health infrastructure that was lacking here in South L.A.,” says Dr. Abraham. “Connecting churches, schools, and all the places we live, work, worship and play are part of the solution so the next time there is a major public health crisis we will be better off and there will be less needless loss of life.”
In February California Governor Gavin Newsom came and toured the Kedren main facility operation and was so impressed that he asked Kedren to take over the “Shot of Faith” initiative where they hold mass vaccination events at churches around South L.A.
“The Governor knew that we would work to meet the pastors and the congregants where they’re at and not put the burden on them,” says Dr. Abraham. “We really take the time to engage, educate, vaccinate and activate their congregants, because we want people to be able to open up their churches safely, and that’s crucial to us. Churches are an important part of the public health infrastructure and will play an important role in revolutionizing health care delivery.”
For Dr. Abraham the church holds an especially important place in his heart as he was in the middle of becoming an Episcopal Priest when he was accepted into medical school.
“I knew that I’d always had a calling to faith, but then I hit this fork in the road. Do I continue my training in the priesthood or do I go on to medical school? I had to make a choice and I chose medical school because I believe in healing. I believe in healing the mind, the body, the spirit, and the soul so for me when I had to choose, I knew I could always minister regardless of whether I got my calling through the structures that exist. For me, I knew that the best way to heal was to make sure that I was competent, credible and that would practice sound, responsible, and safe medicine and being a doctor was the best way to do it,” tells Dr. Abraham.
Abraham did his residency training after medical school at USC Medical in the school of family medicine program where he became chief resident and later joined the faculty. After graduation he found his passion caring for patients experiencing homelessness and substance abuse at the community-based health center, Eisner, in downtown. In 2019 he was recruited to come to Kedren where he’s championed work surrounding chronic pain including people with opioid addiction, providing high quality care for people with psychiatric illnesses, and the care he provides for migrants. Then in 2020 the pandemic happened, and Dr. Abraham jumped into a new position—Director of Vaccines.
“This job was not really something that happened by design or something I sat around hoping to do,” says Abraham. “But we knew we had to be part of the response so this was the work needed to be done.”
According to Dr. Abraham, he hasn’t taken a day off since before Christmas, oftentimes working tireless hours in fast paced and high stakes situations. But when he’s so often asked by the media—who has historically been predominantly white—why he’s taken on such a colossal project with the relentless ferocity and dedication that he’s shown, he can’t help but scoff.
“What do you mean?” he typically answers. “We didn’t have a choice. We had to do this. It was our patients, our staff, our families that were getting infected. The Lord called and we answered.”