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Vaccinating and Valuing the Most Vulnerable

Photo of Dr. Jerry Abraham wearing a white coat and hat, and a blue shirt. He is wearing glasses and smiling into the camera.

Dr. Jerry P. Abraham discusses his career and commitment to protecting and prioritizing underserved and underrepresented stigmatized populations in marginalized and minoritized communities.

At Kedren Community Health Center, National Medical Fellowships (NMF) alumnus and mentor Dr. Jerry P. Abraham commits seven days a week to the democratization and ubiquity of medical care for all.

“Working in a safety net is a real labor of love, but I thrive in the chaos,” he said.  

In addition to his work as director and chief vaccinologist at the historically Black, federally qualified health center and acute psychiatric hospital in South Los Angeles, Dr. Abraham also works as a family and community medicine physician and co-director of the Charles Drew University-Kedren Mobile Street Medicine program, is president of the Los Angeles Academy of Family Physicians, the first FQHC-employed president of the Los Angeles County Medical Association – and still finds time to be a frequent speaker and mentor for NMF.

“NMF has shaped my work as a physician, an epidemiologist, a medical quality specialist, and a policy advocate and activist that centers intentionally and unapologetically on health equity and racial and medical justice in our communities. Everyone deserves to be valued and recognized with dignity.”

But his “claim to fame,” he says, is spearheading the groundbreaking, award-winning COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Initiative at Kedren that, at its peak, vaccinated 5,000 people a day.

Photo of Dr. Jerry Abraham wearing a white coat, hat and mask, administering the COVID 19 vaccine to a patient.

“Helpfulness, hopefulness, and togetherness – that’s what we’re all about,” he said.

Dr. Abraham’s passion for advocacy and compassionate care was first inspired by his mother who worked at St. Joseph’s Hospital, a Catholic charity hospital established in inner-city Houston in 1887.

“I saw doctors and nurses, who were also priests and nuns, give themselves over to this healing ministry of Jesus Christ, and I, too, wanted to make a difference for those repeatedly minoritized and marginalized,” Dr. Abraham said.

His plan did not include medicine at first. Dr. Abraham earned his undergraduate and master’s in public health from Emory University before completing a post-graduate fellowship in global injury epidemiology from Harvard School of Public Health.

“Then I started to realize every decision maker in my field had two letters next to their name – MD,” he said.

While earning his medical degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio, Dr. Abraham completed the NMF Primary Care Leadership Program in Mobile, Alabama, where he assisted resource limited FQHCs along the Gulf Coast meet new federal standards.

It was there he witnessed his hero and NMF alumna Dr. Regina Benjamin, the first Black woman Surgeon General of the United States, conduct her work as a frontline primary care physician and community leader. Dr. Benjamin was honored with the NMF Distinguished Alumni Award in 2010.

Photo of Dr. Jerry Abraham with U.S. Surgeon General Regina Bemjamin.

Above: Dr. Jerry Abraham with U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.

“And I, too, wanted to provide comprehensive care for the whole person, their families, and ideally, their communities,” Dr. Abraham said.

After completing his family and community medicine residency at the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles – as well as a faculty development, medical quality, and health policy fellowship and an American Medical Association medical justice in advocacy fellowship at the Morehouse School of Medicine Stacher Leadership Institute in Atlanta – Dr. Abraham decided to stay and advocate for more equitable, reliable, affordable access to nondiscriminatory health care in Los Angeles County.

“Physicians often prefer careers at institutions like University of California Los Angeles or USC rather than Charles Drew University, given the economic circumstances, pressures, and burdens — especially those who’ve clawed their way out of poverty, or experienced discrimination, who now want to live in wealthier neighborhoods with better schools.

Lauded with prestigious accolades and featured on television programs such as CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and Rachel Maddow, Dr. Abraham says it’s still a struggle to transform what was once a response to a public health emergency into a sustainable model for health care delivery.

“I just got an email saying we’ve received a generous $200,000 donation to keep our program going,” he said. “We work so hard to keep the lights on without ever knowing if there’s going to be a tomorrow.”

His work with Mobile Street Medicine started in 2020 as a 400-person-plus, military-style, field-hospital dedicated to ensuring those most at risk for COVID-19 complications received vaccines. “I was the first person to risk their medical license by vaccinating those without appointments, addresses, legal documentation, contact information, even proficiency of the English language,” Dr. Abraham said.

“We just said, whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whatever the barrier, we’ll figure out a way to help get you vaccinated.”

The nationwide vaccine distribution system had originally overlooked Kedren and the low-income Black and brown populations it serves in South and East LA.

So, after numerous requests were ignored, Dr. Abraham gathered a media crew and led a fleet of vans to bang on the door of the public health warehouse.

“I told them we weren’t leaving until we received vaccines for Kedren,” he said. “And that’s why when wealthier people showed up to camp out and wait for leftover vaccines at our clinic, I asked if they could instead help me find members of their communities that were shut out of the system.  I was not going to allow a drop of vaccine to go to waste.”

“That’s how we created community partnerships with community- and faith-based organizations at a time when we all needed healing most.”

The COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Initiative at Kedren vaccinated over 400,000 – and when the lines for vaccinations thinned, Dr. Abraham knew it was time to buck the paradigm and revolutionize the health care delivery model.

“For those with misinformation and disinformation, mistrust and distrust and access challenges, we needed to move outside and into the communities where people live, work, worship, play, and go to school,” he said. “Because in a system threatening to throw you out of the country, with a history of running medical experiments on people that look like you, why would you trust it? Why would you risk your immigration status, or disregard medical racism, to get a vaccine?”

“That’s why we needed pastors and teachers and community leaders to publicly roll up their sleeves and get the shot.”

Dr. Abraham’s mobile team spent a lot of energy hunting for, engaging, and educating the unvaccinated in housing developments, factories, places of worship, schools, parks, and more.

“Why not meet people where they are emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically? Why not build trust? Why not break down every barrier that stands in the way?” he said.

“The current health care system is one designed within a capitalistic framework to ensure we need transportation, childcare, and three jobs to be able to not only access but also pay for care. That is why we’ve got to keep fighting and empowering others and overcoming these adversities and disparities.”

To tackle additional health challenges, Kedren’s Mobile Street Medicine merged and expanded with Charles Drew University Professor Cynthia Davis’ mobile HIV testing team.

“We’ll always carry vaccines and provide HIV health services, but what else could we add?” Dr. Abraham said. “Blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol screenings? Substance use and addiction treatments and harm reduction interventions? Mental health services? Could we take this approach to gun violence, or homelessness? That’s what I focus my work on now.”

It’s a more difficult task given the lack of resources after the public health emergency, but Dr. Abraham is determined to make it work as a model for others.

“We have to figure out how to be most effective in a world that went back to business as usual, once again leaving behind many Black and Latino people; a system designed to let people die,” he said.

In his “spare” time, Dr. Abraham is also a delegate, vice chair, trustee, committee member, board member, faculty, and diplomat for a wide plethora of organizations and institutions dedicated to providing quality medical care for all, celebrating diverse communities and cultures, and combatting the health harms of climate change.

“The people most exposed to pollution and at risk of becoming climate refugees with chronic health issues in the U.S. are Black and Latino communities.”

Dr. Abraham also works to address issues within his profession, such as clinician well-being and a lack of diversity among the ranks of the health care workforce.

“To reflect the communities we serve, we must be more intentional about training and empowering people from our communities to choose careers in health care,” he said. “And we certainly don’t want to lose any of our colleagues to burnout, dissatisfaction, or God forbid self-harm.”

Dr. Abraham said that is why he believes unwavering support from organizations such as NMF is of the utmost importance, especially for FQHCs and historically Black and Latino institutions.

“Telling your story can be super helpful for those who feel lost and unsure, those asking ‘is this for me’ in a world that tells you it’s not,” he said. “Sometimes being comfortable with the uncomfortable is what it takes to stick it out and step it up, and I hope we can all learn to be a little bit more uncomfortable in order to get to where we need to go.

“We can be more resilient against the structural and systemic barriers designed to challenge and defeat us by working together, and NMF helps us to move forward in that direction.”