As the pastor of Philadelphia’s largest predominantly Black church, the Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller knows that the coronavirus is especially dangerous for his flock.
Since the pandemic began, Black Americans have contracted — and died from — COVID-19 at far higher rates than whites. Waller, who leads Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in East Mount Airy, is encouraging vaccination, an effort made more challenging by his community’s long history of mistreatment and neglect in the health-care system.
But first, Waller wants it known that overcoming hesitancy about the vaccine means acknowledging and respecting that painful legacy.
“To approach this thinking that all we have to do is give the Black community more information does not honor the historical problems we’ve had with the medical community. That’s condescending,” he said. “Our reticence is sacred, earned, and should be honored. And you honor that with truth and transparency.”
Greater transparency is what many Philadelphians are calling for in the wake of the scandal surrounding Philly Fighting COVID, the nonprofit run by a 22-year-old with no medical experience who took vaccines home to give to his friends and quietly launched a for-profit arm. After giving PFC thousands of precious vaccine doses, the city abruptly cut ties with the group following local media reports about PFC.
Now, the scandal has thrown a heavier burden on a physician-run vaccination group working to build trust with Black Philadelphians since the start of the pandemic, the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.
Run by veteran physician Ala Stanford and other medical professionals, the consortium has been offering COVID-19 testing in Black neighborhoods since the beginning of the pandemic. Earlier this year it began holding vaccine clinics at churches and other large facilities in the city, including the Liacouras Center at Temple University on Tuesday.
Initially, about 90% of the group’s vaccine clients were Black. Now, about half are white — in part because of patients who fled to the group after Philly Fighting COVID fell apart. (Everyone who got a first dose through PFC has been offered an appointment to receive the second at clinics that will be operated by the health department, said Jim Garrow, a spokesperson for the agency.)
More than 35,000 people have signed up to get a vaccine through the Black Doctors Consortium since Jan. 11, though Stanford has received just 1,000 doses per week from the city. At that rate, it would take her eight months just to get through the current queue.
“It’s been tough, because the purpose was for us to be in Black communities where the impact had been the greatest. We’re providing vaccines to a community that has been reticent, and making it easier,” Stanford said. “I can vaccinate anyone who wants it. But I need more vaccines. Because I can’t afford to widen the health disparity by not taking care of the group that needs it most.”
In a news conference Tuesday, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the city will send the consortium about 2,000 vaccine doses this week and 2,500 next week.
Supply, scandal, and skepticism aren’t the only barriers to vaccination, though. People who don’t have reliable access to the internet or a smartphone have more difficulty signing up for a vaccine, and those without regular transportation options might find it hard to get to a vaccine site. Plus, the eligibility categories are complex and confusing — for instance, in Philadelphia seniors over 75 can get it, but outside the city 65 is the age.
Put all those factors together, and community leaders’ challenge is clear. As of Tuesday, slightly more than 15% of vaccinations given in Philadelphia went to Black residents, who make up over 40% of the city population. Still, that’s better than the 8% vaccination rate of a few weeks ago.
“It’s moving in the right direction,” Farley said. “It’s still far too low and it’s not moving up fast enough. So we clearly need to redouble our efforts to make sure that this vaccine is made available and in a way that’s acceptable to African Americans and other minority populations in the city.”
Black Americans generally have expressed more hesitancy about getting the vaccine.
“[In November], around 42% of Black Americans said they would get a coronavirus vaccine,” said Cary Funk, director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center, which conducted three national surveys around vaccine hesitancy last year. “That’s the only major demographic group where you’re seeing a little over half saying they would not get a vaccine.”
Stanford and other health experts said they imagine trust in the vaccine will increase as it becomes more widely administered. Many patients she’s spoken to are excited about getting the vaccine, she said. In line at a Black Doctors vaccine clinic last week, some Black Philadelphians waiting to get their shot said that they had been nervous about the vaccine — but that Stanford and other Black physicians’ example had helped them make the decision.
Zakya Hall, 26, signed her grandmother Pauline up for a vaccine and is hoping to get hers as soon as she is eligible. Several members of their large family had tested positive for the virus; they hadn’t seen some of their loved ones in months.
“She’s not excited at all, but she is willing to do it,” Hall said, laughing. “I was a little nervous about it, because we don’t know the long-term effects, and we know Black people were underrepresented in the trials. But the risk of COVID, especially passing it on to family members, is more dangerous. And everything Dr. Stanford is doing is amazing. Seeing her take the vaccine is what helped me decide to take the vaccine.”
Carol Williams, 69, of West Oak Lane, said she was nervous about how quickly the vaccine — the result of a massive scientific international effort — had been produced. She’s even more wary of the medical establishment as a whole. “Throughout history, they’ve given us a bum deal,” Williams said.
But she, too, had seen Consortium members on television talking about the safety of the vaccine. “That persuaded me,” she said, standing in a bitter wind a few feet from the clinic door. “I’m still kind of hesitant, but it’s better than not getting it at all. It’s better to take the chance.”
Inquirer staffers Laura McCrystal and Raishad Hardnett contributed to this report.