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Recognition for bringing COVID-19 vaccine to hundreds of Korean Americans is an honor. How it happened is an inspiration.

We meet a lot of happy people at COVID-19 vaccination clinics. It’s usually a celebration. You can almost feel the weight of living through the pandemic for the past year starting to slide off their shoulders. Hope for a brighter future fills the air.  

That was definitely the case March 27 at STAR Center in South Tacoma when Health Department staff and volunteers gave more than 1,700 doses of Moderna vaccine and roughly 500 local Korean Americans got their second shots.

Most of them are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and English is not their first language. How they got to the event was the true definition of a community coming together. Chairman James Yang of the Korean American Association of Tacoma-Washington surprised us with a plaque in honor of the occasion. 

Health Department employees Natasha Holbert and Gregory M. Tanbara pose with community leader Ynsoon Kim, holding plaques of recognition for their work bringing COVID-19 vaccine to the Korean American community.

He also presented one to community leader Ynsoon Kim for her and her daughter Sophia’s work. Sophia was in Korea at the time but quickly found out from family. 

“We just want everybody to get vaccinated,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Uncertain beginnings.

Sophia and Ynsoon have helped many patients who come to their family clinic with medical forms for years. It only seemed natural to help them get set up for COVID-19 vaccine appointments, too.

“We care for our patients as if they are our family members,” Sophia said. “We have a lot of people come to the clinic just to have coffee and hang out. Most of them are older and don’t speak the best English.”

A lot of the patients asked about COVID-19 vaccine long before it was available. When Sophia began looking into it, she found most of the registrations were only available online and not in Korean. So, she made her own translated paper forms and began handing them out. 

She didn’t know when she would be able to sign people up for vaccinations, but she began a collection for when that time came.

“We didn’t really question helping them,” she said. “It was just something we did.”

Working together to vaccinate the community.

At first the vaccines were only available at hospitals. They tried to get some patients signed up, but it was frustrating. 

Then Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, Pierce County Department of Emergency Management and other agencies started to host clinics. That’s when Ynsoon, Sophia and her brother Eddie leapt into action.

They stalked social media for events and when they went live, they worked as quickly as possible to get the elderly patients signed up. Their list of eligible people had grown from 10 or 20 to 300. 

They had some success, but most of the events were filling up fast. Registrations would only be open for a few minutes.

Then one day they had a breakthrough. Sophia and the team registered 80 people for a clinic in Gig Harbor. They were ecstatic, but something felt off. 

“Registration was open for like 3 or 4 hours and we were still signing people up,” she said. “It just didn’t seem right.” 

A glitch in the system.

 “Technical glitches led to challenges early on,” said Katie Lott, who works for the Health Department and was helping with registration at the time. “People were able to register for clinics that didn’t exist.”

Sophia’s suspicion was soon confirmed.

“The last thing I wanted was to send 80 people over to Gig Harbor and none of them to get vaccinated,” she said.

She reached out to the pastor of the church hosting the event. He didn’t know anything about a clinic that day. That led her to Katie.

“I remember getting the call,” Katie said. “Sophia was like, ‘Hey, I was able to register a whole bunch of people for this event, and I don’t think it exists.’”

“We alerted IT to the problem and they were able fix it,” she said. “But we still had a bunch of people who thought they had appointments, and they did not.”

A partnership formed.

Katie got the list of 80 names from Sophia and soon found spots for them at a Tacoma Dome COVID-19 vaccination event.

Our vaccination team reached out to others who experienced challenges with registration glitches to reschedule as many as possible. 

Meanwhile, Sophia’s list of names continued to grow. The Korean American Association began sending seniors her way. She was now working to find appointments for more than 500 people.

That’s when Katie connected Sophia with our community engagement team, and I got involved. We work to bring vaccine to communities hardest hit by COVID-19. 

When the vaccine supply picked up, we began scheduling more and more clinics around the county. Places like East Pierce County, Key Peninsula, and Tacoma’s Hilltop.  

We were able to put together a large clinic at STAR Center, not far from where many of Sophia’s patients live.

We worked with her to get hundreds of folks signed up. Then it snowed, and we had to push the clinic back a week. 

“We were all very on edge to see how it turned out,” Sophia said.

When the day finally arrived, it brought an overwhelming sense of relief.

‘We want to help everyone’

A month later, back at STAR Center for the second dose event, that relief turned to joy.

“The Korean-American community was so happy because we felt appreciated,” Sophia said.

She thought immediately of her father, Dr. Chong Kim, who started the family clinic and ran it for so many years before he passed in 2019. Sophia says everything they’ve done came from his influence.

In early April, the clinic had its own vaccination event with 250 doses. They plan to do many more.

“I know what it’s like,” Sophia said. “We want to help get as many people vaccinated as possible, in all communities. We want to help the communities that haven’t been heard from as much. We want to help everyone.”

Don’t wait—vaccinate.

Now that everyone 16 and older will be eligible April 15 to get vaccinated, Sophia hopes her story will inspire you. And more than that, she hopes it will inspire you to help those around you get vaccinated, too. Because COVID-19 vaccine is our best path to community immunity and a mask-free future.

“With more options, I’m hopeful people will be more open to getting vaccinated,” Sophia said. “It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t after all we’ve been through.”

COVID-19 vaccines are always free no matter the location. Check tpchd.org/vaxtothefuture for upcoming registration opportunities and use the state’s Vaccine Locator tool today to find healthcare providers and pharmacies with vaccine near you.

If you need help finding an appointment, our friendly call center representatives are standing by 7 days a week from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. to help. Call them at (253) 649-1412. They can also help those who need language interpreters.

Let’s get everyone who is eligible vaccinated for COVID-19!