DEARBORN - In the early days of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, leaders in Michigan’s Muslim communities found themselves in a fight against “negative messaging” surrounding immunization, said Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn.

Initial concerns involved myths about vaccines altering DNA (they don’t) or containing pig parts (there are no animal products in the Moderna, Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson vaccines). The consumption of pork products is forbidden in Islam.

Read more: No, the COVID-19 vaccine will not change your DNA

How did Kazerooni and Metro Detroit’s Muslim community fight these myths? Trust.

“Once they realized all the imams of the center have been vaccinated, gotten scheduled for it and accepted to be vaccinated, then people felt at ease,” he said. “In our community, it was primarily those negative conspiracy theories that were the main reason for people feeling apprehensive or hesitant... but once all the imams, doctors, physicians, health care workers got their vaccines... people felt more comfortable.”

Long-established cultural and civic organizations in Muslim and Arab communities know best how to navigate cultural barriers and earn trust, said Mona Makki, director of community health and research at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS).

“It doesn’t matter how good your product is if there’s not a relationship and trust among the people,” Makki said.

The state is just starting to track vaccination data by Arab ethnicity, and there are no significant numbers available for COVID-19 immunization among Muslims, but targeted outreach efforts in local communities have shown some quantifiable success.

Combing through some stray numbers

Michigan is in the early stages of tracking vaccine doses administered to Arab residents, said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. As of April 14, it shows only 395 Arab residents have received their two shots.

“This is the amount that we have data on for these doses,” Sutfin said. “We continue to work with ACCESS to ensure that all information is flowing through.”

Based on numbers from just two local organizations, ACCESS and the Islamic Center of America, the actual numbers are much higher.

ACCESS administered more than 10,000 doses entering the week of Monday, April 12, Makki said, with about a third of those going to people of Middle Eastern or North African descent. Those numbers will grow this week due to four more clinics planned at the organization’s community health center, 6450 Maple St. in Dearborn.

Over the last month, the Islamic Center has administered about 2,500 shots, said Mirvat Kadouh, vice chair of the mosque’s board of trustees. While the mobile clinics are open to all comers, much of the services cater to Muslim-practicing and Arab-speaking residents, she and Kazerooni said.

Additionally, the federally run clinics at Ford Field in Detroit have administered about 20% of its 67,000 shots to people who identified as Asian. With no category for Arab ethnicity on forms filled out by vaccine recipients at that site, it’s likely many Arab Americans identified as either white or Asian, said a FEMA data representative.

Read more: Ford Field was supposed to serve Black Detroiters. Instead, the rest of Michigan took advantage.

The U.S. Census 2019 American Community Survey estimates Michigan’s Arab American population at about 221,631. The Census does not track data on religious affiliation.

Covid-19 Vaccinations at Access in Dearborn

Sarah Naamou assets with Moderna Covid-19 vaccine distribution at Access in Dearborn on Tuesday April, 13, 2021. Nicole Hester/

Catering and messaging to the local population

ACCESS started its vaccination program to help bridge cultural and language divides and attempt to fix what was initially a “discouraging process.”

“We saw there was an effort through the health systems to get people vaccinated in Dearborn,” she said. “The problem was that the system and the way (it) was set up was that you needed to make appointments online. That created a barrier for the Arab American community, because for a lot of them, there’s a language barrier -- they don’t know how to use the technology or people had to wait hours and hours on the phone.”

That led to the organization applying for a spot in Michigan’s federal vaccine pilot program, which allowed some local groups to set up their own vaccination programs in an effort toward more equitable distribution.

Read more: State to release 35,800 COVID-19 vaccine doses to 22 entities for more equitable distribution

ACCESS partners with Meijer, Henry Ford Health System and FEMA to administer vaccines.

Mariam Beydoun, a 30-year-old Dearborn Heights woman with an autoimmune disorder, said the ACCESS clinics are well-staffed and offer a seamless experience.

The process didn’t take more than a half hour, Beydoun said.

“Everyone was super friendly,” she said. “The whole thing was really organized, really easy and it made me feel more relaxed about getting it.”

Beydoun heard about the clinic through a Facebook seminar ACCESS hosted with Henry Ford Health and local religious leaders. The goal was to not only advertise vaccination opportunities, but to confirm the vaccine’s safety to community members and clarify support among religious leaders for getting vaccinated.

In fact, for Muslims, it’s a religious duty to protect yourself and one another from danger, Kazerooni said while urging vaccination.

“We have a principle within our laws that anything that is harmful or could harm others should be avoided, and anything that would help others and would help oneself (should be embraced),” he said. “This is the basis on which the grand scholars have centered. There are edicts regarding this particular thing.”

The sermons and seminars have helped ease skepticism around the COVID-19 vaccine among many, Beydoun said, though concerns still exist about being vaccinated while fasting during Ramadan, which began this week.

“I know people went to a forum where Muslim religious leaders (went over) how getting the shot won’t break your fast,” she said.

ACCESS plans to hold a late clinic Friday, April 16 at 8 p.m. to accommodate those who want to be vaccinated after breaking fast at sundown.

At the Islamic Center of America, Kazerooni worked with Henry Ford Health specialists to dispel myths about the vaccine containing pork products and openly tells his followers to get vaccinated.

“This vaccine is not food-oriented or some kind of vitamin,” he said. “When we gave people the green light that even if their second shot happened to come during the month of fasting, it’s not going to negate your fast. People are now more comfortable coming forward without thinking they have to wait.”

The Islamic Center holds clinics every Monday, Kadouh said, as well as supplemental clinics whenever possible. About 600-900 vaccinations a week have been administered over the last month, she said.

The clinics, staffed by volunteers from the center and Henry Ford Health specialists, have been booked up two weeks in advance.

“A lot of people like to come to the mosque, because it’s a place of trust,” she said.

To accommodate the congregation’s most devout women, there are female nurses and volunteers available to help avoid contact with men, as well as areas of the mosque designed for maximum privacy, Kazerooni said.

“It makes life easier within our community for our female sisters,” he said.

Even though the Arab community makes up about 1% of Michigan’s population,

Kazerooni said every single vaccination helps Michigan take a step toward its goal of immunizing 70% of the population by the end of the year.

“To be able to facilitate a speedy achievement of that (70%) marker, which is so critical in protecting our society, I say it in my sermons... it’s a community and collaborative effort if we’re really going to make a dent into this.”

Read more from MLive:

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