Illustration of covid-19 vaccine
Credit: Photo illustration by Julia Terbrock

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In an attempt to reach more people, the D.C. government is making some changes to its vaccination rollout. A big one: DC Health is hosting vaccine clinics at a church in Ward 7, a ward where not as many seniors have gotten vaccinated yet. DC Health plans to vaccinate 200 residents 65 and older at the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church this week. 

The vaccinations at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church are part of a new D.C. government initiative called “Faith in the Vaccine,” where health officials are using trusted messengers in the community to promote the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and simplify a complex registration process. That the health department is hosting vaccine clinics at a place of worship comes as a surprise, seeing as the government agency was not considering this option just over a week ago. DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said as much during a Jan. 27 conference call with the Council. 

“I will state affirmatively, we are not in a place in our response where we would be establishing drive-thru sites or choosing churches, places of worship, as pop-up vaccine clinics,” Nesbitt told lawmakers. “The District is not entertaining those venues at this time as a way to reach seniors or any other population.” 

Nesbitt said then that logistical challenges, including vaccine storage, hindered DC Health’s ability to vaccinate residents in places like churches. In a press conference on Monday, Nesbitt said efforts to reach certain populations led her agency to launch the pilot at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church. (As far as mass sites, like one at Nationals Park, Nesbitt said supply continues to be the greatest challenge D.C. faces. DC Health would likely use up its supply in two days if they did mass sites like the ones seen in Maryland. She also said mass sites could undermine D.C.’s equitable approach.) 

“If done successfully … if it draws the right community we are trying to reach, we’ll expand,” said Nesbitt when asked if other churches will be selected as vaccination sites.

The Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church is now hosting vaccine clinics this Thursday and Saturday, according to the church receptionist. The church had plans to host an in-person registration drive on Monday, but canceled it. All the appointments were booked online. Only seniors living in Wards 5, 7, and 8 were able to book an appointment. 

Last week, DC Health announced that the agency would prioritize Wards 5, 7, and 8 for appointments because they have the lowest percentages of seniors that have received at least one dose of the vaccine. These wards, where more Black residents live, are also disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. A recently published D.C. Auditor report says that people living in these wards were more likely to work essential jobs and thus unable to stay home.  

Administering vaccines at the Ward 7 church is the latest example of the D.C. government’s attempts to narrow disparities based on race and income. The agency also set up vaccine clinics at 14 public housing buildings where a lot of seniors reside. The agency has also been freeing up appointments on exclusively to priority zip codes on Thursdays, and then to seniors living everywhere else on Fridays. Nesbitt was initially resistant to this idea too. “It is not a policy we can have to suggest to someone who is demanding the vaccine that ‘you cannot go into another neighborhood and access it when it is available,’” Nesbitt told the Council in a rather heated conference call. The agency rolled out the new policy after data showed emerging disparities.   

DC Health has been prioritizing seniors of select zip codes since the weekend of Jan. 15. At a Jan. 28 conference, Nesbitt said the policy is working as intended—Wards 2 and 3 reserved 70 percent of appointments before the change and now they reserve 49.5 percent. But the data regarding senior vaccinations continues to show Wards 5, 7, and 8 trailing behind wards in Northwest for multiple reasons, including the fact that seniors do not just book appointments via, but through vaccination providers like hospitals.     

Some residents believe officials are leaning too heavily on vaccine hesitancy or mistrust in medical institutions based on racism to explain disparities. “These people aren’t hesitant … They don’t know how to get online. They want to live too. They want the shot,” says Orandra Cotton, a native Washingtonian who’s lived east of the Anacostia River all her life. “You have to take the services to the community.”

Cotton speaks from experience. She successfully booked her mother a vaccine appointment. When she accompanied her mother to get vaccinated at Washington Seniors Wellness Center on Alabama Avenue SE, Cotton says every senior there had their child accompanying them or another member of the community. This tells Cotton that to get vaccinated, seniors need to have an advocate. 

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