Zuri Arana and Olga Cacanas, both 40, were seeing an accountant on Ninth Street to discuss their taxes when they noticed the signs near South Philly Barbacoa advertising: “Free taco with vaccine.”
The couple, who live in Gloucester City and work in Philadelphia as house cleaners, rarely have days off from work, leaving no spare time to make a vaccine appointment. But by coincidence Sunday, they were already near a vaccine site.
They walked over and registered to finally receive the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a long-awaited opportunity to protect themselves against the coronavirus.
Arana and Cacanas were two of the 84 people who were vaccinated through Jefferson Health’s mobile vaccine program on Sunday outside of South Philly Barbacoa, the famed Philadelphia restaurant known for its lamb tacos and social justice work. Those who got vaccinated received a voucher that could be exchanged at the restaurant for a free taco.
“We don’t have time to take the shot, this is the principle reason,” Arana said, referencing why the couple waited to get vaccinated. “This is much better for us. I text all my family about this.”
All Philadelphia adults have been eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine for more than a month, but clinics across the city have reported that vaccine supply has exceeded demand. Many public health experts have attributed the demand drop to “vaccine hesitancy,” a term often used to describe why populations including people of color and those in poverty, who have long been mistreated by health systems, have vaccination rates lower than white people.
In Philadelphia, nearly half of all white people and 60% of Asian people have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine; for Latino and Black communities that drops to just about 30%, according to city data.
Though fewer than 100 people vaccinated during Sunday’s taco event may seem to be a small number compared with the mass sites that have the ability to vaccinate thousands of people a day, Bon Ku, one of Jefferson’s emergency medicine physicians, said it was an “absolute success.”
“Most of these people would not have gotten the vaccine if it weren’t here in their neighborhood,” Ku said. “This is the way we are going to vaccinate the rest of America, by literally putting vaccination sites in parking lots, in streets, in schools, in churches.”
Jefferson Health’s “Tacos and Shots” clinic was one of many of its mobile vaccine efforts funded through the city, said Robert Pugliese, the director of Innovation Design at Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health. It was staffed by more than a dozen Jefferson personnel including physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and community health workers.
Pugliese does not think vaccine hesitancy is the reason why the people who were vaccinated on Sunday waited to get a shot. He called hesitancy a “lazy word.”
Instead, he said this event was an example of the programs needed to get hundreds of thousands more Philadelphians vaccinated. These mobile sites located within neighborhoods, he said, are more accessible and convenient to many people who still need to be vaccinated.
“This is the kind of thing people are responding to now,” Pugliese said. “We’re going to make that remaining 40% of people who still need to be vaccinated with sites like this.”
South Philly Barbacoa chefs Cristina Martínez and Ben Miller said they saw many of their neighbors and regular customers on Sunday. All of their staff is vaccinated, Miller said, and they hope this event made it easier to access the vaccine for those who live and work nearby.
“This is an opportunity they might not have,” Martínez said.
Other vaccine providers have also offered incentives to encourage people to get shots. After Ohio announced that five vaccinated residents would receive $1 million each, there was a surge in daily vaccinations. New York and Maryland recently announced lottery systems to encourage vaccinations, and New Jersey announced new incentives on Friday, including dinner with the governor and first lady.
The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium offered $20 to every person who came to the Dell Music Center on Saturday for a second dose if they brought an unvaccinated person with them to get a shot.
Patricia Henwood, who has led the emergency medicine response to COVID-19 at Jefferson Health, said that although cases have plummeted and businesses and activities are reopening, she still sees people sick and hospitalized from the coronavirus. She thinks about how much safer those patients would have been if they had the opportunity to be vaccinated.
“We’re here to make sure that we literally meet our patients here, so we don’t meet them in the emergency department,” Henwood said.
Anna Sandoval, 24, of South Philadelphia, had struggled to make an online vaccine appointment. She heard about Sunday’s clinic from her brother-in-law and has followed South Philly Barbacoa’s journey from a food truck to what it is now. Though at first she felt a little leery about getting a vaccine, she ultimately decided to do it.
“I’m feeling a bit better because now I know I’ll be OK,” Sandoval said. “I’m grateful because [Martínez, the South Philly Barbacoa chef] does try to give back to the community and this isn’t the first time she’s collaborated with another corporation to do something.”
Nudia Reyes woke to a call from her parents Sunday morning urging her to rush to South Philly Barbacoa. The family lives nearby and her father had seen the vaccine clinic while he was out getting groceries.
The 13-year-old listened to her parents and got her vaccine as people were lining up around the corner for tacos. She said she had some doubts about receiving the coronavirus vaccine, but felt safer once she got it.
“I can go to birthday parties and sleepovers now,” she said.
Dwayne Fox, 60 of South Philadelphia, said he was sick with the coronavirus about six months ago, is currently recovering from hip surgery and has a “bad heart.” This clinic was an easy way for him to get vaccinated before his summer plans.
Herminio Torres Perez, 44, was buying tamales at a nearby shop when he learned about Sunday’s clinic. He had tried to make vaccine appointments before, but couldn’t find a time that worked with his schedule as a restaurant worker. When he heard this clinic was free, came with a taco, and was just a short walk away, he decided to check it out.
Finally getting vaccinated at a location like this was easier, he said as he sat inside the Airstream with Mexican music playing through the speakers.
“I don’t want others to get sick; at least now I can protect my coworkers,” said Perez. “They should do more events like this in the community.”