When Ángel Félix de la Cruz’s wife told him he could walk in for a COVID-19 vaccine at Esperanza, he immediately planned his trip. The 70-year-old, a refrigeration technician for a private company, woke up early to drive his pickup truck from South Kensington to Hunting Park, to avoid the lines and crowds before he began his workday. Originally from Sabana de la Mar, Dominican Republic, he was surprised to be in and out in 20 minutes.
“It was so fast, I couldn’t believe,” De la Cruz said. “I had an interpreter with me [to help with the process], so it shouldn’t have been so quick.”
De la Cruz is one of the more than 10,500 residents who have received at least one shot at the Esperanza Community Vaccination Center in North Philadelphia over the last two weeks. The center, which held a training session April 8 and soft launched April 9, is the second federally supported mass vaccination clinic to open in Philadelphia and the nearest to city zip codes with the lowest vaccination rates.
The Inquirer visited five times as operations continued at the site, talking to Latino residents as they came for vaccines, appointments, or information. They said they were interested but were skeptical of the vaccination process. Some carried the emotional baggage of improper medical testing conducted by U.S. scientists over decades in their homelands.
Most said they were grateful to be able to receive personal attention in their native Spanish or Portuguese at the Esperanza site, in addition to having access to the vaccines, but many questioned its effectiveness and expressed fears of side effects. The prospect of infertility worried some, although the CDC says there is currently no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems.
Earlier this month, an Inquirer analysis found residents of the highest-income zip codes in the city have been vaccinated at twice the rate of the lowest-income zip codes. Public health experts said the data reflects the systemic disparities that Philadelphians have experienced for years and that have become more evident during the pandemic.
Those experts said the conditions created by poverty and institutional racism, in addition to poor access to health care and the lack of internet services, have excluded and marginalized residents, putting them at greater risk for COVID-19 and making it difficult for them to schedule a vaccine appointment.
According to data from the City of Philadelphia, Latino and Black residents are among the population groups with the lowest vaccination rates — only 23% of Hispanics and 22% of African Americans had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the city as of April 18 — compared to whites (40%) and Asians (47%).
When it comes to the North Philly site, the data also shows that 54.6% of the doses distributed at Esperanza from April 8 to 21 have gone to Hispanic and Latino visitors, followed by non-Hispanic Blacks (16.5%), and non-Hispanic whites (13.9%). Most visitors have ranged between 50 and 64 years of age. The city didn’t provide a breakdown by zip code. Neither did it provide data on walk-ins compared to scheduled appointments.
The City has partnered with FEMA and Esperanza to get COVID-19 and vaccine information out into the communities on a daily basis, canvassing the neighborhood and using door-to-door outreach efforts at homes, community organizations, churches, parks, bodegas, and other businesses in the area. The staff is fluent in English, Spanish and/or Portuguese to connect with community members and answer their questions.
At the approximately 25,000-square-foot facility, visitors have access to an information tent seven days a week staffed by the city health department, where residents are personally assisted to schedule an appointment.
Efraín Rodríguez, 73, who identifies as a Philly Rican, walked from the intersection at Franklin and Luzerne Streets to the center to schedule his first shot. He considered the site a “huge advantage” for North Philadelphia residents, especially those who live in the nearby neighborhoods.
“It really doesn’t matter which vaccine I get,” he said. “I do think it’s important to get that personalized attention, you know.”
Charles Elison, external affairs officer for FEMA Region III, said the City and the federal agency conducted listening tours with local organizations before opening the Esperanza site to ensure it responded to people’s particular needs.
He said Esperanza was considered a strategic location because of the size of its infrastructure, proximity to the zip codes with low vaccination rates, easy access to parking and public transportation routes, the walking distance from residential homes, and accessibility for persons with disabilities. The site can handle at least 1,000 vaccinations on weekdays and 1,500 on weekends until mid-June.
On average at the site daily, there are eight Spanish interpreters and about two dozen interpreters who can speak either Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Arabic, or Haitian Creole or communicate through American Sign Language. There is a language line made available to residents onsite for those who can’t read their native language or prefer someone to interact with.
Clinicians and health specialists working at Esperanza are members of Pennsylvania’s National Guard. Most are bilingual and come from the local surrounding neighborhoods.
In addition to the scheduled appointments, visitors can walk-in for the Pfizer vaccine by presenting documentation that demonstrates residency in the city of Philadelphia, such as a driver’s license or any photo ID along with a utility bill. According to a FEMA public information officer at the Esperanza site, about 40% of all visitors on a given day request walk-in service.
Lidia Alejo, 60, went through the vaccination process in a wheelchair, having had hip surgery two months ago. After she learned about the site on Telemundo 62, she asked her daughter to drive her to Esperanza.
She said her experience was fast and efficient but said she felt anxious around the National Guard. Although the clinicians don’t carry weapons, she emphasized that they were wearing a uniform.
“I was glad I was able to get my vaccine, but being around the Army just makes me very nervous.”
Despite the interest in visiting the vaccination site, some residents said they were wary of having U.S. government-related medical procedures. They said they were cautious because American scientific testing in Latin America over the years led to irreversible harm in the communities.
US government scientists violated ethical rules in Guatemala when infecting hundreds of prisoners, psychiatric patients, and sex workers with syphilis and gonorrhea during the 1940s to study the effects of penicillin. Contraceptive trials sterilized one-third of women involved in experiments held in Puerto Rico.
According to a FEMA public information officer at Esperanza, 80% of all visitors are primarily of Puerto Rican and Dominican heritage.
While some visitors felt disappointment when the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was suspended at the site, William Ferreira, from Northeast Philadelphia, was looking for a specific vaccine: the one produced by Pfizer.
The construction worker from Curitiba, Brazil, visited the site with five family members. His employer advised him to take the Pfizer shot to avoid “bad” side effects.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine had been on temporary hold, but a U.S. advisory panel recommended on Friday that it be resumed because its benefits far outweigh the remote risk of a rare but potentially life-threatening clotting disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quickly agreed, and use of the vaccine has been cleared to restart with revised labeling carrying details about that disorder, including symptoms — notably headaches and blurred vision, shortness of breath, chest pain, and abdominal pain.
All three of the vaccines approved for use in the U.S. can cause fatigue and flu-like symptoms, among other mild and temporary side effects.
Other visitors to the Esperanza vaccination center shared that they were visiting the site secretly to avoid backlash from family and close friends who thought the vaccines would cause infertility in both men and women, despite any evidence of that being the case.
Journalist Catalina Jaramillo, who reported on the fertility question for FactCheck.org, said during an interview that the rumors around vaccine-related sterilization were instantly debunked late last year in the U.S., Latin America, and Europe. But the harm caused by that disinformation continues to linger.
De la Cruz, the South Kensington resident, said he wanted to get vaccinated to protect himself and his clients, because he enters people’s homes on a daily basis. He said most of his family members had been vaccinated, too, after suffering from COVID-19.
“I’m the only one who hasn’t caught it yet.”