Frontline Blog

San Francisco documentary spotlights impact of community-based organizations on health equity during COVID-19 pandemic

May 2024

Screening of “Heart of Access” at GLIDE Memorial Church, Sept. 2023. Photo includes (from left to right) ShakaJamal, filmmaker (fourth person in the back), Berta Hernandez, People Development Manager at SFDPH, (fifth person in the front), and Susan Philip, Health Officer at SFDPH (sixth person in the front).

A documentary from the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) movingly shows how community members and organizations banded together with the health department to provide testing and vaccine equity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SFDPH developed the film, “Heart of Access,” alongside community partners and with funding from a Public Health Infrastructure Grant (PHIG) and an Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among other things, the flexible PHIG funding supports local health departments in strengthening community relationships.

As the film explores, in the early stages of the pandemic, SFDPH quickly identified communities that were the hardest hit. The health department united with community organizations, health care systems, and academic partners to implement testing and vaccination campaigns to reach Black, Latinx, and other socially and economically marginalized communities.

This coalition used a four-pronged strategy to address COVID-19:

  • Implementing aggressive mitigation measures
  • Using a health equity lens to prioritize neighborhoods and populations disproportionality impacted
  • Use of timely and adaptive data to inform policy
  • Building partnerships and public trust

The partnership resulted in more than 40,000 COVID tests distributed, and more than 30,000 vaccine doses administered. A study showed that this comprehensive response resulted in lower levels of illness and death from COVID-19 across nearly all ages and ethnicities – lower than the state as a whole, in fact.

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The health department wanted to highlight this work and specifically the camaraderie that was cultivated across the coalition. Dr. Berta Hernandez, People Development Manager at the Center for Learning and Innovation in the SFDPH Population Health Division, emphasizes how important it is to document experiences like these – whether through manuscripts, murals, or films – in order to preserve the history and inspire future action. The idea of a film was proposed during a meeting with community leaders to showcase the work the community-based organizations do in their neighborhoods.

The 26-minute Heart of Access documentary focuses on this community-driven response. The film features over 10 community-based organizations and credits over 50 CBOs that supported the vaccination efforts.

San Francisco, having lived through HIV/AIDS, has a strong history of community advocacy and community leadership, and we certainly built upon that in the COVID response.

Susan Philip, MD, MPH, Health Officer, City and County of San Francisco

The film has aired in several locations, including the American Public Health Association Film Festival in November 2023. The coalition is developing a discussion guide that can be shared with academic institutions that are training the future public health workforce and will also be used for the health department to train and onboard current and new staff.

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