'Ms. Finch's List': How One Tennessee Woman Vaccinated Hundreds
They call it “Ms. Finch’s list.”
From her home in Knoxville, Tennessee, former hospice healthcare professional Cynthia Finch has spent the last months coming out of semiretirement to take on a new, urgent cause in eastern Tennessee: spearheading vaccination efforts to protect the region’s Black community against COVID-19.
Finch, a Black community leader, spends her days collecting names, making lists, and connecting the dots to get Black residents of Knoxville — who make up about 17% of this city of 187,000 — in line for vaccine jabs in their arms. Along with a coalition of 80 Black pastors in the region, she carves out time each day to speak to hospitals, clinics, and state and city officials to make sure any Black Knoxville-area resident who is eligible for vaccination can get one.
"Many people have still not been back inside their churches since March of 2020."
It’s not an easy undertaking.
“It’s a problem of lack of information and access,” says Finch, 63, who worked in nursing homes, hospice, and end-of-life care for nearly 40 years before leaving her last post at Smoky Mountain Home Health & Hospice in 2017. Now, she volunteers her own time for what she describes as “passion projects.” Doing her small part to end the pandemic is her biggest and most important effort.
The pandemic has hit Black communities around the nation — including those in Knox County — disproportionately. The disparities have now also come into play with vaccination. More than 1.2 million people have been vaccinated in Tennessee. Yet, even though Black people make up 17% of the state, they represent under 9% of those getting vaccines, according to state data.
The reasons vary.
Historically, vaccination rates have been lower among Black communities because of the overall systemic racism in the health and medical industries, widely documented by scholars. Getting a vaccine appointment usually requires having a computer, internet access, and web-savvy, tools that tend to be less available in Knoxville’s Black communities, older communities, and less wealthy neighborhoods.
A Notorious Study
The legacy of the Tuskegee Study is also still felt. From 1932 to 1972, the federal government carried out the notoriously unethical study in Alabama, in which Black men were told they were receiving treatment for syphilis but were actually not treated — an unforgivably deceiving way to study the course of untreated syphilis.
A December Pew survey found Black Americans to be the least likely to say they would get vaccinated, with just under half committed to getting jabs.
The history and numbers are part of what has led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to make education about vaccines one of its national priorities. “African Americans are voicing understandable concern and skepticism about the vaccines and treatments being developed,” Dr. Marjorie Innocent, the NAACP’s senior director of health programs, said recently ahead of a national town hall on helping the organization's members “understand vaccine development, approval, availability, and distribution.”
Finch, who was in a trial for the AstraZeneca vaccine, became involved in the local vaccination effort as a result of first joining a pandemic-response team in May. The missionary president at the Greater Warner Tabernacle AME Zion Church in Knoxville, Finch had been in touch with Black pastors throughout the region who were grappling with the consequences of COVID-19.
“We were coming together on conference calls, trying to educate each other about the pandemic and how churches and parishioners could stay safe,” says Finch. “Many people have still not been back inside their churches since March of 2020. When the vaccines came around, we decided we had to coordinate about how to get everyone encouraged to get their shots.”
Keeping the Faith — and the List
The group meets weekly on Zoom and calls itself the Faith Leaders Church Initiative. Finch is usually the one taking names on one end for those who want to be vaccinated and taking calls on the other end from vaccine sites that have slots open.
“When someone says to me, ‘Ms. Finch, can you get me on the list?' I take it very seriously,” she says, “and hold onto that name and piece of paper. This can be life and death — we can’t forget that. And it is jobs, people’s livelihoods, too, that are on the line if you want to get back to work safely.”
While vaccinations are currently taking place in the city largely by appointment, Finch hopes to soon be able to organize open drive-in vaccination clinics at church parking lots, where anyone can show up.
She says she and her co-volunteers have “everything we need, from the nurse volunteers to computer people to sign-up coordinators, and even drivers to help get people from place to place. The only things we don’t control are the flow of actual vaccines and who makes the decision to get one. That’s what we want to change.”
A woman who describes herself as “a believer, a Christian and a person of faith,” she adds that she is “praying for this pandemic to end soon and for the world and our communities to get back on their feet.”
This post is part of a month-long March CircleAround series, tied to Women's History Month — the first since the global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted women around the world — in which we asked writers to explore the topic of women's history in America, from the past to very much the present. To see all the posts in the series — including relevant news stories — visit here. And if you'd like to contribute to the series, send us your thoughts to email@example.com or post on our "2021 Inspiration Wall."