A recent survey of 145 residents in Charlestown and Dorchester showed that more than 82 percent said they would take the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to them, while 17 percent would not, or were unsure.
That was good news for the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), which is currently rolling out Phase 1 of its vaccination program and doing serious planning and education within the neighborhoods to find out what the barriers and attitudes are about the vaccine.
Dr. Jennifer Lo, of the BPHC, said right now they are working on vaccinating health care workers and those in long-term care facilities – while just rolling out their program last week to vaccinate those living in homeless shelters. At the same time, they continue to plan by looking at surveys such as the one done in Charlestown.
“BPHC has been planning for vaccination distribution since late November or early December,” she said. “The urgency with which we’re trying to distribute vaccines is palpable. We respect and understand the need to get it in the arms of those that need it, particularly populations that need it most and disproportionately affected groups like Black and LatinX communities.”
The survey in Charlestown was made up of 56 percent white, 19 percent Black, 11 percent LatinX and 6 percent Asian. Most said they would take it because of the fear of getting COVID-19, or because they are a caregiver to a young child/older adult. Others said it was to hasten a return to normalcy or help the community.
That was in contrast to a focus group done in Dorchester and Mattapan where 44 percent were Black, 27 percent were white, 12 percent were LatinX and 2 percent were Asian. In that focus group of 78 people, 53 percent said they wouldn’t take it or were unsure, while 47 percent said they would take it.
Dr. Lo said they are using that information that will be part of a campaign to dispel rumors about the vaccine and to acknowledge the historic shortfalls in minority communities in regards to medical experimentation with vaccines on those populations. While they are preparing the logistics for a massive vaccination effort in the City, they will also be sending out messages with the correct information.
“We’re using that information so we can shape our message,” she said.
“We hope it will change some minds, but at the same time, at least you have the facts if you don’t change your mind. We’re trying to correct the conspiracy theories and hearsay. We’re really trying to assert and present the facts.”
She said that can be hard to do with legitimate mistrust of the medical industry from people of color, people who know the history of misuse of vaccines on Black and brown people in the past.
“We have had success and effectiveness in preventing infectious disease with vaccines from a scientific standpoint,” she said. “We also know there are historic instances with medical experimentation on people of color. Our goal is to get everyone correct information on this vaccine.”
In the meantime, Lo said they are working with a number of different partners and caregivers to begin building a network for massive vaccination efforts.
Already, the City announced Monday it would be standing up a mass vaccination site at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury Crossing, and at the same time they are also working with hospitals, health centers and private providers to also make the vaccine available in a number of different sites and formats.
In essence, it might be a little bit like the early voting procedures that took place last fall for the Presidential Election. One could vote at Fenway Park if they wanted to, or they could go to City Hall on a weekday. They could vote by mail or even absentee ballot. Meanwhile, they could also stay close to home and vote in person at their home precinct.
So it is, Dr. Lo said they believe the more choices one has, the more opportunities there will be to take the vaccine and break down barriers.
“I think community health centers will play a role, pharmacies will play a role, hospitals will play a role and mass vaccination sites will play a role,” she said. “We need to figure out how to eliminate barriers and accessibility barriers. The idea will be to continue working with organizations in the community so that when the opportunity is there, people will take it. I think all of the above will be scenarios where people could get vaccinated so we are taking away barriers to access.”
Dr. Lo said community health centers will be a focus for them in the coming months for vaccination due to their convenience, but also their trust within the community.
“Partnering with identifiable people within the communities that can speak from their own personal experience and be a trusted figure in their community will be critical,” she said. “They are health care workers. I think identifying these trusted individuals is what we’re doing now. That’s why health centers are central. They are embedded in the community and have people from the community working there. It’s a process each time we get the message out.”
Of course, the overall goal is herd immunity, so that enough people are vaccinated that the disease cannot spread easily through the population that decides not to take it or the vulnerable populations that cannot take it due to medical conditions. Dr. Lo said the discussion for achieving herd immunity is somewhere around 70 to 80 percent of all residents. It sounds daunting, but the good news is there has already been great successes with the homeless populations in shelters that have had vaccines available since last week. Despite being a very challenging population, they have been very willing to be vaccinated.
Dr. Lo said the initial reports showed that the shelters met their goals in the first few days. The City’s Mass/Cass 2.0 Task Force reported there have been about 100 per day sign up at the various shelters where clinics are being held. They reported there are more than 500 that were vaccinated from the shelter population and staff in five days.
“Getting to that herd immunity in the end protects the community and in particular it helps those who cannot get the vaccine for various reasons,” said Dr. Lo.