Q&A with Jerry Abraham, the ‘Dr. Fauci of South L.A.’

How Emory alumnus, physician, and epidemiologist Abraham keeps fighting for equitable COVID-19 vaccine distribution in his community, as well as the democratization of health care everywhere.

Portrait of Jerry Abraham

Jerry Abraham 05C 07MPH will tell you, at heart, he’s just a family doctor who typically sees 20 to 30 patients a day. But when COVID-19 hit, he and many of his colleagues at Kedren Health — a community-based campus of primary care and mental health clinics in South Los Angeles — were forced to step up into new roles. 

With his background as both a practicing physician and an epidemiologist, Abraham was selected to lead Kedren’s COVID-19 vaccine program. His naturally gregarious and engaging personality proved to be an asset, too. Since late December 2020, he has worked diligently to help hundreds of thousands of people in South L.A. get vaccinated against the coronavirus in Kedren clinics and sometimes even in their own homes. But the process has been fraught with difficulties.

The vaccine distribution system originally overlooked Kedren and the diverse community it serves — primarily low-income Black and Brown populations that have been disproportionally impacted by the pandemic. Abraham sounded the alarm to get his patients equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine, combining all he learned from Rollins School of Public Health with his dogged persistence and a yet-to-be-tapped media savvy. Since then, his tireless efforts and advocacy for the disenfranchised have been featured in dozens of articles and interviews over the past several months, including spotlight segments on the Rachel Maddow Show, Meet the Press, VICE News, and others.

Emory Magazine connected with Abraham via Zoom — from his vaccine command center tent on the Kedren campus — to learn more about the challenges he’s faced so far in fighting COVID-19, as well as those that lie ahead.

EMORY MAGAZINE: How exactly have you had to fight for equitable access to vaccines in South Los Angeles? 

JERRY ABRAHAM: Cumulatively, we have vaccinated more than 300,000 people in South L.A. who honestly I believe would have been shut out had we not aggressively advocated for equitable vaccine distribution here in Los Angeles County.

It started back on Christmas Eve 2020, right in the middle of the third wave of COVID-19 infections. I had many sick nurses and patients here at Kedren and all the other major health care systems in the city had already received vaccines. Our institution, which has long served a historically Black and Brown community, had not yet been contacted. I was upset. I picked up the phone and demanded to know where our vaccines were.

A week later, on New Year’s Eve, I wound up driving to the public health warehouse with a fleet of vans. I brought a media crew with us and banged on the door, telling them I was not leaving until I got vaccines for my clinics. It worked. We finally got some vaccines and some needed attention. The media started to tell our story about the lack of access and health disparities our patients faced.

Our vaccination efforts — and challenges — were featured on the Rachel Maddow Show, VICE News, and many others. We knew that race, ethnicity, and risk were not being appropriately calculated into the political and economic decisions behind vaccine distribution and wanted to shout it out loud, far and wide. That’s how we went from zero vaccines to, at our peak, vaccinating 5,000 people a day this spring and summer with lines wrapped around the block.

This was not about publicity for publicity’s sake. It was all about practicing good public health and medicine, about getting lifesaving, essential medicines to the people who needed it most first.

EM: What does your vaccination operation look like today?

ABRAHAM: It’s really hard to believe several months from when we started, we’re still vaccinating seven days a week and we’re open until midnight. When you look at our operation at Kedren here in South L.A., you’ll see it looks something like an episode of M.A.S.H. It’s a field hospital of tents — registration tents, testing tents, vaccination tents — donated by UNICEF and the World Food Programme.

At the height of our vaccination efforts this spring and summer, we had 400 volunteers and employees just working around the clock to get people vaccinated and tested. It's been a long journey, aided by partnerships with the International Medical Corps, the American Red Cross, AmeriCorps, and others. Countless people and organizations have really contributed, including a lot of corporate philanthropy and individual donors, as well as public-private partnerships at the federal, state, and local levels. It’s been a massive effort over a very short amount of time, but we really had that sense of urgency, and we knew we had to make it work.

It’s also involved starting up a mobile vaccination program, where we’re taking the vaccines in vans out into the community where people live, work, worship, play, and go to school. We’re helping the homebound who can’t get to us and our clinics.

EM: How critical has it been for you to leave the walls of hospitals and clinics and go out into your community to put vaccines in arms?

ABRAHAM: Going out into the community, going door-to-door and neighborhood-to-neighborhood is really hard to do. We have to spend a lot of energy hunting for unvaccinated arms, engaging, educating, vaccinating. It’s a lot of work, but it's really the cost of this last mile where we achieve health equity.

We’re not safe until everyone’s protected, until we get to that 70­ to 85 percent herd immunity rate for us to really be able to declare this pandemic over. At the same time, the virus is doing what it does best, mutating into new strains and new variants. Delta has become a very serious threat. The more people the Delta variant can infect, the more likelihood we’re going to see other more infectious, more deadly strains emerge. We feel that it’s palpable here, this is truly a race against time. There’s not a moment to lose, not a drop to waste. We’ve got to get everyone vaccinated.

EM: Besides distribution access, what have been some of your specific challenges in getting your community vaccinated?

ABRAHAM: We serve the poorest parts of Los Angeles County — it’s the largest county in the country, and L.A. is the second largest city in the nation. We also have one of the largest school districts in the country and one of the largest public housing developments in the country. It’s been war-torn by COVID-19. We see mortality and morbidity here just as we might in some of the most resource-limited places in the world.

High-tech vaccine appointment systems can work well, especially after all the bugs are worked out, but sometimes they get in the way in communities like ours. After experimenting with different approaches, we decided that no appointment was necessary at Kedren to get a vaccine. We were trying to break down every barrier. You have no appointment, no email, no cell phone? You can’t walk, see, or hear? You don’t have an address because you’re homeless? You don’t have documentation because you’re not in this country legally? You don’t speak English? You don’t have transportation? None of those should be barriers to getting vaccinated.

EM: What about vaccine hesitancy — the holdouts?

ABRAHAM: As for vaccine hesitancy, the message has been muddied by the media. Do not confuse a lack of access in the Black and Brown community for vaccine hesitancy. It’s offensive to us here.

Also, do not confuse people who aren’t getting vaccinated with the fact that the public health system has not addressed or overcome all of the barriers that stand in the way. That includes the digital fortress of those appointments systems, as well as the supply and demand of the vaccines themselves. The barriers include the history and lived experiences of our community, from the Tuskegee trials to the abuse of Henrietta Lacks’ cells, from the undertreatment of Black pain in American hospitals to the medicalization of racism in this country.

In our clinics, we work to break down these barriers in numerous ways, but primarily by respecting the dignity and worth of every individual. By meeting people where they are and treating them with respect. That’s the Kedren way. We'll spend a whole day out in a mobile unit and maybe get 50 people vaccinations. There are a lot conversations and a lot of rejections. You really do feel like a door-to-door salesman peddling vacuums or encyclopedias. But it’s worth it because this work saves lives.

EM: You’ve become very media savvy over the past months. Some even called you the “Dr. Fauci of South L.A.” How do you think working closely with the media has helped your efforts?

ABRAHAM: I will say that we’ve been very strategic in how we’ve communicated with the public and with the media. Early on, we got burned when the L.A. Times published a story about how vaccine chasers from Beverly Hills and Malibu and other wealthy areas came to South L.A. and Kedren to get vaccinated. That was pure sensationalism and not the true story of what was going on at our health care campus.

Since then, we’ve opened up our operations so that trusted media partners — reporters and writers and photographers — could see firsthand what was going on in the trenches. How we registered people. How we tested. How we vaccinated. They talked to our patients. They talked to me about the lack of access and other disparities challenging our community. In fact, sometimes we converted them into real volunteers, almost like being embedded with us, and they’d write about their experiences. Those were very powerful pieces. They were like our own embedded medical press corps. And we not only got attention from the local press, but also from national outlets as well. It’s helped us become the trusted voice when it comes to vaccine information in Los Angeles County. It’s why city and state leaders have come to Kedren. It’s why I was invited to testify before the US Senate on equitable vaccine distribution.

As for the Dr. Fauci comparisons, I look up to Dr. Fauci. He’s an American hero. He’s my hero. But I am no Dr. Fauci. I am not a renowned translational scientist taking bench to bedside. But I am my own social entrepreneur here with this mobile vaccine program start-up. And I want to inspire young folks to choose careers in medicine and public health. I want people of color, both men and women, to really see a future where they can make a difference. I want them to know it’s not just bureaucratic red tape and signing off on patient charts and progress notes. It’s fun, it’s innovative. And you really are changing lives for the better. In that capacity, call me whatever you want, even the “Dr. Fauci of South L.A.” As long as you get vaccinated, you can call me whatever you like.

EM: How did you decide that you wanted to get into public health?

ABRAHAM: My mom is a nurse at the oldest hospital in Houston, St. Joseph’s Hospital — a Catholic charity hospital established way back in 1887. When I was young, I remember seeing doctors and nurses, who were also priests and nuns, give themselves to this mission, this healing ministry of Jesus Christ. To help, to clothe, to heal, to comfort. As a kiddo, there was just something very impactful in seeing this. As you grow up you wonder how are you going to make a difference.

After graduating from Emory with my bachelor’s degree, I felt pulled to the Rollins School of Public Health. As I worked toward my master’s degree, I was trained by some of the school’s great minds — Dean Jim Curran, Bill Foege, and Mark Rosenberg to name just a few. I fell in love with global health and epidemiology. While at Rollins, I got to work at what’s now the Global Task Force for Global Health at the Carter Center. I got a research fellowship at Harvard. And then I realized that everyone at the highest positions in my field were also physicians. So I decided to get my medical degree, which I did from the University of Texas. And then I completed my family medicine residency at the University of Southern California.

Since then, I’ve been using all I’ve learned as a family and community medicine specialist. There’s no better specialty that grapples with what’s best for both the individual and the whole community in context. I get to use both my medical and public health skill sets, which of course have been hugely important in my current role.

EM: What do you think we have learned from the pandemic that you think will help us prepare for or even prevent the next one?

ABRAHAM: The momentum we’ve built, I want this to continue long beyond vaccines and testing. At Kedren, we really want to solidify a lot of this new public health infrastructure we’ve developed that helps break down barriers and health disparities. That includes the revolutionized delivery model of taking health care outside of the traditional walls of clinics and hospitals and into mobile units straight to the patients’ homes, workplaces, schools, houses of worship, parks, and other key places in the community.

On a broader scale, I’m really hoping that over the next two to five years we can focus on truly healing this country, this world, from this awful pandemic, and to prioritize preparedness — because we cannot let this happen again. It will only be criminal if we do. We know way too much now, we have built too much, we have come too far in the past 20 months to just forget or to become lazy or complacent and let something like this, this type of atrocity, this type of suffering happen again here and abroad.

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