JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Rev. Lester Lattany doesn’t pull any punches while discussing COVID-19 vaccination progress in the Volunteer State.

“Tennesseans are not getting the vaccine to the level that they could be or should be,” the pastor of Friendship Baptist Church said Thursday.

That sentiment is a major reason Lattany’s Johnson City church is hosting a vaccine clinic May 15-17. And the longtime community figure said he’s pressing his church’s leadership and those of other area churches to encourage so many people to get the jab that supply outstrips demand.

“It’s important … for every community and if we’ll do this then we’re looking at a different point in life than we have been dealing with for over the last going on two years,” Lattany said.

Along with another at Kingsport’s Greater Life Church, the mass events will be the shots across the bow in the grant-funded “Take A Shot on Life” effort. It’s a collaboration between First Tennessee Development District (FTDD), Region Ahead, and vaccination partners Ballad Health and ETSU Health.

Lattany said COVID hit Black communities across the country particularly hard, the situation was similar here, and that health and safety ministries are an important element of Friendship’s mission.

“We realized that if we’re going to talk about doing this, this is an opportunity for us to step up and create an opportunity for people to come and actually be vaccinated,” Lattany said.

Ballad vaccinators will provide the Pfizer vaccine at Friendship and Lattany said appointments are available but walk-ins will be welcome. A second-dose clinic is scheduled the weekend of June 5.

FTDD’s Lottie Ryans said the capacity is impressive. Up to 12 vaccinations per hour for each “administering professional” can be completed.

“We are setting up the Ballad sites to have a special hour for those who have mobility issues and can’t navigate the building,” Ryans said.

Kojo Abakah is a volunteer vaccinator.

Kojo Abakah hopes to be part of the team at Greater Life in Kingsport. He’ll have graduated from East Tennessee State University’s College of Pharmacy by then and has spent as much of 2021 as he can as a volunteer vaccinator.

“It’s a community effort to get everybody vaccinated, to getting everybody outside and smiling with no mask on and being able to shake hands and hug, so I thought just volunteering would definitely help our community to get back to normal.”

Abakah, who is from Ghana, said COVID’s global nature makes the opportunity to help as a health professional even more appealing.

“It’s extraordinary just giving COVID vaccine so I’m glad to be part of the group,” he said. “Every opportunity, any time that I get I want to volunteer.”

Pushing against hesitancy – or indifference

Abakah will be administering the Johnson & Johnson one-shot dose if he works the Kingsport clinic. He said the science behind all the vaccines is solid.

“They’ve worked so hard to get those vaccines in,” he said. “Great people, intellectual people, they’ve studied it so much and they’ve done their due diligence, so I believe there’s nothing to be so worried about.”

The vaccine effort’s van is hard to miss.

Lattany is hoping to see Friendship leaders and those from other predominantly Black Johnson City churches work hard to pack out the event. Friendship will promote it on its Facebook page and website, but nothing beats word of mouth from the right people.

“We know a lot of people within our congregation and the other congregations who are what we call influencers,” he said.

Lattany said that influence comes from relationships built over years.

“People know them, people trust them and we’re requesting that they call friends, talk with friends, put it on their own Facebook, make sure that they have the opportunity to tell as many people as they possibly can.”

Lattany’s voice rises as he discusses the gravity of the situation. Tennessee has lagged the nation in vaccine uptake and since early April, with only an additional 6.5 percent of its population receiving a first vaccine dose, compared to more than 11 percent in Virginia.

The figures for Northeast Tennessee are even worse — just 4.6 percent of the population got a first dose between April 5 and April 28 even as vaccines became widely available to all adults.

“We need to make sure we’re listening to the guidelines coming from the Centers for Disease Control,” Lattany said.

And he pulled no punches in his assessment of recent action at the state government level.

“There are things that are coming from the governor’s office that might seem contrary to what is being spoken by the health officials and by the CDC, but it’s time to use your own brain.”

An appeal to altruism and a path to normalcy

Many Friendship members have already received the vaccine, but Lattany said he’s calling on those who haven’t to consider getting theirs at the church after services on the 16th.

“It’s about people taking care of people,” he said. “People working together and helping one another.”

Rev. Lester Lattany of Friendship Baptist Church is promoting the “Take A Shot on Life” vaccination campaign, and his church is hosting one of the group’s first events May 15-17.

Abakah agreed, saying people who push past hesitation are serving in a way that’s as important as that of volunteer vaccinators.

“As we give to each other, as we serve each other I think that’s a great mission for everybody,” he said.

Lattany said successful vaccinations, promotion by trusted influencers and time have helped decrease a high level of initial hesitancy in communities of color.

“I’m seeing more people of color understanding that you really need to take good care of yourself,” he said. “When those who you have confidence in are expressing the importance of this, it’s wise to make sure that you’re doing what you can.”

Both men said the brass ring vaccination proponents are grasping for is a return to normal life based in science, public health and safety.

“I just pray that folk will come to the reality that this thing is still real, this pandemic is still very dangerous and we want people to stop dying from it,” Lattany said.

“If we’ll show real care and concern for one another as people, I believe we can get past this.”

Information about the Take A Shot on Life campaign, including how people can register for a clinic or request getting the mobile vaccination vans to visit their communities, is at:

Abakah said he’ll do anything he can to convince people to get a vaccine.

“We all want to get back to life of going to grocery stores, seeing people smiling and shaking hands — we want to get back to that… We should work on getting that life that we had three years ago, two years ago back, and the vaccinations is our way to that — and everybody should get it.”