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'Today we removed every single barrier': Vaccine operation focuses on southeast Bakersfield

A blind man arrived on a bus. Several people hopped out of taxis. Others drove or simply walked over.

Regardless of the many ways they came to The People's Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday, their focus was singular: to receive one of 1,000 one-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines, free of charge, right in their southeast Bakersfield community.

"Today we removed every single barrier," said Arleana Waller, founder of the MLKcommUNITY Initiative, one of the organizers of this first pop-up clinic in this area of town.

Removing barriers began long before Sunday's Operation Vaccination distribution, which included drive-up and walk-up slots. For one, no appointments were necessary, knocking out the barrier of computer, internet or phone access to set up a time. But perhaps more importantly, a coalition of trusted messengers fanned out to surrounding neighborhoods in the days before the event to share a message: You are welcome. The vaccine is for you. And we want to answer any questions you have so you are confident and comfortable.

"You have to put the vaccine in the area where people are," said V.K. Jones, lead pastor of The People's Missionary Baptist Church, who noted the virus has disproportionately impacted Black and Hispanic people.

The atmosphere was downright festive as staff from Adventist Health, Dignity Health and Kaiser Permanente administered vaccines, answered questions and monitored recipients the required 15 minutes after their immunization. A Hall Ambulance crew stood by in case of any difficulties.

Bakersfield College cheerleaders cheered for people waiting in their vehicles after being vaccinated. Younger cheerleaders were on hand, too. A jazz band played. One woman's smile was a mile wide as she spent part of her post-vaccine waiting time outside her car dancing with county Supervisor Leticia Perez.

People weren't simply happy. They were downright joyous to receive the vaccine, even if their reasons were at times quite somber.

"We did it because some of our family members passed away. We didn't want to be next," said Jorge Ceballos, 39, who was there with his wife.

Debra and Carlton Freeman said relatives had come by their home, about two miles from the church, on Sunday and shared that they'd been vaccinated.

In the car the couple went. "They woke me up from my nap," Debra Freeman said, not a hint of regret in her voice. She knew she wanted the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and Sunday delivered.

Emaginne Grant, 33, also sought the single-dose vaccine. So when she head about the opportunity Sunday, she was there.

"It was really easy," said Grant, who was impressed she didn't even need to leave her car.

Perez and Facebook each provided $5,000 grants for Sunday's event. And Gov. Gavin Newsom's office directed doses to the day.

Both Jones and Waller emphasized that even if someone didn't receive a vaccine Sunday, it's not too late. Waller urged people with further questions to reach out via the MLKcommUNITY website, where she and others stand ready to walk people through the information they need to be comfortable with the vaccine.