longtime Ward 8 organizer Philip Pannell
Philip Pannell Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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As he has done for the past 40 years, Philip Pannell gathered his commitment to D.C.’s right to self-govern and schlepped it from Anacostia to another rally for statehood and voting rights. He joined about 400 demonstrators last Saturday, Oct. 23, outside the Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon on New Jersey Ave NW, the stopgap for this phase of the 70-mile rally relay for voting rights and D.C statehood.

Supporters had spent the summer marching for, among other things, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and Freedom to Vote Act. That day they were also protesting the newest development in the saga of voting disenfranchisement: Wednesday, Oct. 20, Senate Republicans filibustered the Freedom to Vote Act, stalling the bill from slaying state-level voting restrictions and expanding voting access.

Pannell, a lifelong organizer and the executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, was surrounded by fellow activists on Saturday when he collapsed at the memorial. He was gurneyed to the nearest emergency room where a doctor informed him that he had tested positive for COVID.

He was released from the hospital with doctor’s orders to isolate for two weeks. But even in isolation, Pannell gathered the strength to attend the ACC’s monthly virtual meeting where he used his experience to promote the vaccine.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks when the doctor told me that,” Pannell said during the ACC meeting. “Because first, I’m fully vaccinated. I’ve been very attentive to wearing masks when I’m in enclosed spaces … Even being as careful as I could, I still contracted the virus.”

Doctors said his vaccination status saved the 71-year-old from needing a ventilator and possibly from death. Forty-nine of the 50 D.C. residents who have died of COVID-19 since June have been Black, and 60 percent of those were from wards 7 and 8, DCist reported last week. Forty-two of them were unvaccinated. While breakthrough infections can happen even when folks are fully vaxxed, the chances are much lower and protections are much higher. 

“Ninety-nine percent of the people who are dying from this disease are unvaccinated, so [the vaccine] already gives you a good shot,” Reed Tuckson, former Commissioner of Public Health for D.C., said during the ACC meeting.

Isolation means Pannell’s plans to get the booster shot will have to wait, as will his tickets to opening night of A Chorus Within Her at the Anacostia Playhouse, and his trip to accompany a co-worker to the grocery store. But his work continues.

“Please, everyone, spread the word [to] get vaccinated,” he said during the ACC meeting. “If I had not been vaccinated, the doctor made it very clear that … the situation could have been far worse.”

Pannell’s ally in his quest to promote the COVID vaccine for residents in wards 7 and 8 is Stuart Anderson, another longtime community organizer whose vaccine campaign efforts City Paper has chronicled. Communities east of the Anacostia River, plagued by poverty and gaps in health care, have struggled with COVID vaccination rates since the shot first became widely available in the District. Anderson’s team of COVID vaccine ambassadors was funded by a city grant that ran out Sept. 30. Pannell says he still hopes the funds will be replenished for more direct outreach.

Ambassadors spent months canvassing door to door and chatting up vaccine-hesitant neighbors on stoops, on corners, and in cars. They were fighting against the main barrier to protecting residents in wards 7 and 8: a deep-seated vaccine hesitancy informed largely by historical medical mistreatment of Black people. Tuckson lamented the ingrained and incorrect belief that Anderson describes among young Black men in particular: that the vaccine is out to kill them.

“There is a Balm of Gilead, and it’s called the Anacostia Coordinating Council,” Tuckson said at the ACC meeting. “We have to be here for each other and keep supporting each other emotionally.”

The crew’s persistence has gradually paid off. While stark disparities in vaccination rates remain, rates in wards 7 and 8 have inched upward. But Anderson says his three-person team has a long way to go “when you look at the fact that 40 percent of the population in Ward 8 is still unvaccinated, [when] we are out here every day still doing the work, [and] we still hearing the same stuff.”

Anderson chuckles as he reminisces about their toughest residents to convince, some of whom eventually became their best ambassadors for the vaccine. On triumphant occasions they walked or drove residents to vaccination sites. He has continued the slow fight, armed with strategies on which he trained his team over the summer—harnessing your personal experiences, approaching vaccine-hesitant folks again and again.

The newest phase in the battle approaches. Winter is coming, and Anderson says he will need to shift from in-person outreach to phone banking. Anderson will also be calling folks his team helped get vaxxed to promote getting booster shots now that they are more widely available in the D.C. area. The Food and Drug Administration last week approved third shots of the Moderna COVID vaccine following its authorization of Pfizer boosters for a larger segment of the population. Today, an FDA panel recommended the emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5 to 11, and the FDA is expected to authorize it in the coming days. That will be another advocacy point for the ACC. 

“Sometimes we have to walk away and not win,” Anderson said. “But it’s not because we don’t try everything in the book. Then you walk away knowing you tried everything, you were persistent.”

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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