A virtual event hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day featured an extensive discussion with Dr. Ala Stanford, a surgeon and founder of the Center for Health Equity in Philadelphia.
The talk started with a land acknowledgement by Alex Palmer, who recognized the Wampanoag people as the enduring stewards of Martha’s Vineyard, and recognized the plight that native people continue to face.
MV NAACP member Rita Brown welcomed Stanford, and spoke a little to her professional history, and her history as an advocate for Black and other people of color. “Ala is our neighbor and our friend, and we are happy to have her speak today,” Brown began. “Dr. Stanford knew she wanted to go into the medical field by the time she was 8 years old. She is one of a handful of Black pediatric surgeons in this country. She is a member of the Philadelphia board of health, and a member of the Philadelphia department of COVID-19 advisory board.”
During the worst of the COVID pandemic, Stanford opened the Center for Health Equity after she saw all the injustice taking place in low-income communities and communities of color in regard to COVID vaccination, testing, and treatment. Stanford made it her mission to make sure people of color weren’t overlooked, and that they got the medical help they deserve.
“People started reaching out to me saying that they thought they had COVID but they kept getting turned away from emergency departments,” Stanford said. “I called emergency departments saying ‘You turned away this person, but they meet the criteria for COVID testing’ — I did that all day long.”
Although the people whom Stanford spoke with were empathetic, they had no legitimate course of action to remedy the situation. Because Stanford had her active medical practice, she had access to gowns, gloves, and masks. She spoke with the folks over at LabCorp, who were at the time the main touchpoint for COVID tests. “They asked me how I was going to pay for it, and I said ‘You are going to bill me for every test,’” Stanford said. Together with her pastor, Stanford was able to identify all the zip codes where COVID positivity rates were the highest. In each of those zip codes, they found a church that would let them use their parking lot. “I would tell them that all we need is electricity, a restroom to use, and a parking lot,” Stanford explained.
Stanford’s community testing centers refused to turn anyone away because they didn’t have health insurance, and no identification was required. The only requirement was that people were exposed to COVID and were at risk of infection. “Some people were so sick that by the time we called them to give them their results, they were either in the hospital or deceased,” Stanford said.
When Stanford heard the reasons why other test centers and clinics were turning people away, she was shocked. Those who took public transportation to a drive-up location were refused. Those parents who brought their children to a youth clinic but also wanted to be tested themselves were refused. Those who didn’t have a prescription from their doctor were refused. “When I asked what difference it makes that you don’t have a script, they said ‘Who is going to be responsible for calling the person with their results? I can’t call all these people,’” Stanford said.
Eventually, Stanford ramped up the benevolent practice and began going door-to-door with a rented van to test people in their own homes. Then, two years ago on Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, the group started vaccinating people. Stanford and her team took people from the hardest-hit zip codes in Philadelphia, and undertook a 24-hour vaccination marathon. They ended up vaccinating more than 4,000 people in one day. Before long, families were reaching out to Stanford asking how they could get their elderly parents or grandparents vaccinated — so the group started doing home vaccinations.
In just 24 hours, Stanford’s team outpaced the city of Philadelphia in vaccination numbers. The newly formed group, called the Black Doctors COVID Consortium, was vaccinating more people of color and more people who were disproportionately impacted than both hospitals and city health clinics — all without state or federal funding. “We were meeting the mark with people who really needed the support,” Stanford said.
As Stanford was planning to head out of the city and back to her home, she considered the level of need in communities like the ones she aided during the worst of COVID. “As much as I wanted to go back to the suburbs, I couldn’t. I built this Center for Health Equity to be in the community so that people would continually be supported and advocated for,” Stanford said.
After creating the center, Stanford was appointed to be the regional director of health and human services for her region in Philadelphia. Now she heads up issues relating to healthcare, housing insecurity, and more, and makes sure residents in those susceptible communities know about all the resources that are available.
“Sometimes the people who lead don’t have titles. The resources need to be available to the most vulnerable,” Stanford said. “What one person of color needs or one person not of color needs is not the same, and it behooves us as medical professionals to recognize what the patient needs.”