On Friday morning, the feeling inside Mt. Moriah Baptist Church (1636 E Capitol St. NE) was pure joy. Periodic waves of cheering and applause spontaneously broke out as in groups of 2 to 4, people received the COVID-19 vaccine.
One of them was Betty House, 78. House said she was skeptical about the vaccine at first. But when a woman knocked on the door of her apartment and asked if she wanted an appointment, she decided to call her doctor to see if she should do it.
“He was like, “yes, take it yesterday”,” House said.
The volunteer helped House sign up for the vaccine and arrange Metro Access transportation to and from the church, where House got the single-dose Johnson and Johnson shot shortly after 9:30 a.m.
“I’m so glad I did,” House said, “I stepped out onto the water.”
She said she hardly felt it.
Putting Equity Front and Center
The vaccination clinic was the result of a partnership between Mt. Moriah, Howard University and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D). They worked with the organizations on the ground already, including Ward 6 Mutual Aid (W6MA), Capitol Hill Village (CHV), Hill Havurah and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), including Commissioners Alison Horn (6B09), Brian Alcorn (6A08) and Sondra Phillips-Gilbert (6A07) to make sure Black and Brown residents of Hill East received the vaccine.
The bulk of vaccine appointments through DC Health have far have been available through the online portal, a situation that immediately resulted in great disparity across ward and race. On the first day vaccines became available to seniors, residents of the District’s three most affluent wards claimed 70 percent of available appointments.
It was clear that while COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting communities of color, more vaccinations were being administered to the white and affluent residents of the District.
Vaccination appointments are now prioritized by zip code, but Allen said once DC Health started putting out neighborhood-specific data, huge disparities became obvious within even Ward 6 zip codes 20002 and 20003. “The online portal works for a lot of people; it doesn’t work for everybody,” Allen said, “and if we’re going to put equity front and center, that means you have to take the extra steps.”
At one point, data for the 20003 zip code showed that Capitol Hill residents were vaccinated up to five times more often than those in Hill East. According to DC Health, 1358 people have been vaccinated in Capitol Hill overall, compared to 595 in Hill East.
The clinic moved to address that disparity by going straight to the Black and Brown people in the neighborhood. Up to 200 people were vaccinated on Friday, 86 percent of them black or brown, according to Allen’s office.
“I think we’re going to have a huge success today,” Allen said Friday, “and my hope is, we’re going to do it again.”
The efforts made by neighbors were key to reaching those people who had not yet otherwise been connected with the vaccine, Allen said. The event was not advertised on social media or online, Allen said. “We didn’t share the link on list servs, because we knew what would happen if we did, to be frank.”
With the bulk of vaccination appointments available through the DC Health online portal, the joys of being vaccinated have not been shared proportionately by everyone in the District.
To help close the gap, W6MA, CHV and Hill Havurah went door-to-door in senior housing, asking seniors if they wanted the vaccine and signing them up for appointments.
73-year-old Thelma Ruffin said she would have been vaccinated sooner, but she didn’t have access to a computer to sign up for an appointment. A volunteer signed her up and arranged transportation to and from the church. While Ruffin said being vaccinated feels “wonderful” and is a relief, she is not going to throw caution to the winds.
“I’m going to still where my mask and be safe out there until everyone is out of their masks,” Ruffin said, as she sat in a church anteroom for fifteen minutes of observation.
The clinic came together very quickly. Two weeks ago, Allen’s office reached out to DC Health, who made the connection with Howard University. Howard has made it a priority to get out into communities when they are invited.
“It’s important for us to get out into the community,” said Shelly McDonald-Pinkett, the hospital’s chief medical officer, “because often there are community members who will not come into hospital facilities or come to their physicians, but they will trust their churches, their community centers to deliver appropriate care.”
Many of those receiving vaccines Monday are Howard patients, McDonald-Pinkett added, and not only is it easier for them to be vaccinated when the clinic comes to them, it builds on that existing relationship.
McDonald-Pinkett interrupts the interview as a man walks out of the room, having just received the shot. “I didn’t feel a thing!” He tells Dr. McDonald-Pinkett. “Told you,” she says, smiling sagely.
Maurice Cook is Executive Director of Serve Your City (SYC) DC, the hub organization for W6MA. He said that since thousands more white people have gotten the vaccine in the District, it was critically important that Black people be involved in the effort to get people of color vaccinated. “Only Black people can be counted on for everything that we’re prioritizing,” he said, “because the system refuses to address and acknowledge this disparity.”
“It was our goal at Mt. Moirah to get the vaccine to as many Black and Brown people as possible,” said Pastor Lucius M. Dalton, “because we realize that white people are getting vaccinated in much higher numbers.”
Dalton is the Senior Pastor at Mt. Moriah. While trust in the vaccine was cited as an issue early on, Dalton said he believes that access is the major hurdle that most Black and brown people face to getting vacinated, both in terms of the ability to register and the ability to travel to appointments.
Volunteers from the church Health and Wellness Ministry, pastoral office and security team helped staff the clinic. Dalton said the church reached out to congregants who are residents of Ward 6 and Kingman Park.
“That’s the uniqueness of the African-American Church,” Dalton said. “People may not come on Sunday, but they feel comfortable because of all the weekly events. They have a trust of the church.”
Ruby Hill agreed. She secured one of the first vaccination appointments of the morning, getting her shot at 9 a.m.
Hill said she heard about the clinic through CHV, but added that she felt comfortable receiving the vaccine at Mt. Moriah because she had been to the church food bank previously. “It’s just that feeling that you get from coming into the church,” she said. “You get that covenant with God.”
Hill, a 68-year-old grandmother, said the vaccine is all part of her post-pandemic planning. “I’m protecting myself,” she said. “I’m going on a grandpa hunt. You can’t do that from 6 feet under.”