For Herbert and Ed Jackson, father and son, the decision to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has been complicated by fear, skepticism, and the logistics of receiving a shot.
Herbert Jackson, 50, got his first dose May 3. He’s known people who died of the virus and works at a North Philadelphia paper factory, he said, and was worried about catching the virus there.
“No one is masked” there, he said Wednesday afternoon, after meeting up on Hunting Park Avenue with his son, who just finished work as a security guard at Esperanza Academy Charter School.
Ed Jackson takes the pandemic seriously, he said, and expects he will get the shot eventually, but he already had a close call with the virus when all eight of his roommates caught it. For the time being, he was more concerned about side effects from the shot causing him to miss work — even though most people feel fine after about a day — than about catching COVID-19.
“I don’t want the side effects — like my arm being sore for a couple days, being nauseous,” he said. “I got work to do. For me to be out and staying out for a couple days, that won’t be helpful.”
About three blocks away, just 715 shots would be administered that day at the Esperanza Community Vaccination Center, a mass clinic able to offer more than 1,000 shots a day.
Esperanza, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency but supplied with vaccine by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, was established in North Philadelphia specifically to address low vaccination rates there, though vaccination rates lag citywide. Black and Latino populations have suffered a disproportionate toll throughout the pandemic. About 26% of Black Philadelphians and 27% of Latinos have been vaccinated so far, according to city data, compared with 55% of Asian Philadelphians and 45% of white residents.
Esperanza’s outreach to Latinos has been effective. As white Philadelphians continue to account for almost half of the doses administered at the city’s other mass clinic — at the Convention Center — about 56% of shots from Esperanza have gone to Latinos, who make up about 31% of the residents in the zip codes nearest the site. That area remains one of the city’s under-vaccinated zip codes, but since the mass clinic opened, the number of first vaccine doses administered has grown by 40%.
The Black community, though, has gained far less benefit from the site. Only about 18% of the clinic’s shots have gone to Black recipients, despite that demographic making up about half the population in the area.
“It’s scary and it makes me sad at the same time,” said Quetcy Lozada, Esperanza’s vice president of community engagement and organizing. “I want to make sure people understand that we’re there.”
The demographics of Esperanza’s vaccination administration mirror what’s happening citywide, even as more vaccine providers open across the city. Philadelphia is planning an extensive advertising campaign to promote vaccination in Black and brown communities. The outreach efforts — including phone calls, text messages, and door-to-door canvassing — are slated to begin soon, and health officials expect to expand mobile and pop-up clinics in the city’s under-vaccinated neighborhoods.
“All of these clinics will allow and encourage walk-ups and will demonstrate how easy it will be to get vaccine,” said James Garrow, a spokesperson for the health department.
Even when vaccine doses are available in communities of color, though, that isn’t entirely a solution. Some pharmacies in largely Black neighborhoods have given a disproportionately low percentage of their doses to Black recipients.
There are many reasons for that, including pharmacies hosting off-site vaccination clinics, pharmacists said, and some Black customers who were vaccinated elsewhere before their pharmacy was approved to carry doses.
Others, though, said that reaching the Black community has been a challenge.
“I’ve literally walked my block myself and I’ve said, Let me see who in the neighborhood I can literally talk to and just see if they can get vaccinated,” said Ben Nachum, of North Philadelphia’s Patriot Pharmacy, where less than half of 951 doses have gone to Black recipients in a zip code where Black residents represent the majority. “When the [Johnson & Johnson] stuff happened, it just made it even worse.”
Cases of a rare blood-clotting disorder, in one case fatal, were linked to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and its distribution was temporarily paused. Federal authorities ultimately decided use of the vaccine could resume — determining that the benefits of the one-dose shot outweighed the risk of the rare disorder — but required it be administered with a warning.
At Esperanza, FEMA’s efforts to encourage vaccination in the surrounding neighborhood have focused on the Latino community, and the site includes signs in Spanish and Spanish-speaking staff. A spokesperson for the city health department, though, said it hasn’t marketed the vaccination clinic to any particular race or demographic. There could be a misconception in the Black community, Lozada said, that Esperanza’s clinic is particularly for Latinos.
“We cater to everyone within our footprint, within our boundaries,” she said.
In interviews with The Inquirer, residents who were not yet vaccinated cited a mix of frustration, misinformation, fear, and the reality that in a city with high poverty and record gun violence, COVID-19 isn’t necessarily the community’s only threat.
“We can’t just walk in a neighborhood and assume COVID is the worst thing happening right now,” said Stephanie Reid, executive director of Philly Counts, a community engagement program conducting outreach to boost vaccination rates.
Also at work, said the Rev. Alyn E. Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, is systemic disenfranchisement from health-care systems for Black Americans and lack of leadership and confusing messages from public health officials. Waller, who has hosted multiple vaccination clinics at his church in East Mount Airy, said public messaging can seem confusing and contradictory, with reports of the vaccine’s effectiveness appearing to clash with warnings of the pandemic’s ongoing threat, while misinformation streams through social media feeds.
“It’s nullifying people’s trust, and when people don’t trust a thing they step back and wait,” he said.
Less than 40% of Philadelphians age 20 to 44 have received at least one shot. Vaccination rates among Black residents have tracked closely with other demographics in most age groups, but in that younger bracket just 19% of Black residents have received shots, compared with 31% of Latinos and 45% of whites.
“This is not as much about vaccine hesitancy as it is traditional challenges with standing institutions in our community, and trust and availability,” Waller said.
A group of Black men in their 20s and 30s chatting Wednesday near the intersection of Reese Street and Hunting Park Avenue said they would not get vaccinated. One said he was particularly concerned with the clotting disorder. They also cited debunked or unsubstantiated rumors about the vaccine, including that it would infect people with the virus (none of the COVID-19 vaccines approved contains the virus). But consistently, they said they simply weren’t that concerned about catching COVID-19.
As with Ed Jackson and his roommates, some had close experience with COVID-19, and knew people who recovered. One man, who declined to give his name for privacy reasons, said his mother and uncle both had COVID-19 and were OK. He believes he also may have had it, though he was not tested.
“Why are they coming up with a vaccine now and they need everyone to take it and there are all of these other diseases in the world?” he said.
Another man in his 30s said he was too young to need to worry about coronavirus.
Others in the neighborhood didn’t dismiss the pandemic’s toll, or the value of a vaccine, but simply said it wasn’t a priority.
“I’m still debating,” said Russ Wilder, 41. “I think I might go some time this week just to get it out of the way.”
The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium has been highly successful at reaching the Black community, with that population receiving 72% of the organization’s doses, by hosting clinics in Black neighborhoods and heavily promoting its efforts. Pharmacists said word of mouth helps. Lehigh Pharmacy in West Kensington has also had success, administering 123 shots, but with more than half to Black recipients. Staff there credited a local television news report that featured the business’ vaccination efforts.
“The phone went off the hook within 30 seconds,” said Katie Mroz, a pharmacist tech.
Philadelphia’s health department, meanwhile, is in the process of releasing an advertising campaign on television and radio, including traditionally Black stations, that will feature doctors from communities of color answering questions common in those neighborhoods, Garrow said.
“People who can honestly speak to the challenges of a particular community and offer specific advice to folks,” he said.
The lack of urgency among some Philadelphians was a concern to the health department, he said.
“We know that taking time to get a vaccine might not be folks’ top priority,” Garrow said, but “the faster we all get vaccinated, the sooner we can start to enjoy those things again.”
Staff writer Chris A. Williams contributed to this article.