Bringing the COVID-19 vaccine to Boston’s hardest-hit communities is a battle against hesitation and misinformation


After a Sunday service at the Church of God Christian Life Center in Dorchester, parishioners visited a pop-up clinic in the back room, where a nurse from Boston Medical Center prepared a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine for Ireland Aime , who fidgeted nervously in a folding chair. The 34-year-old Dorchester resident said accelerated vaccine development had made her reluctant to get the vaccine for over a year now – even as the virus ravaged her community and she treated patients COVID last year as a nurse at Carney Hospital.

Man receives dose of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Immigrant Family Services Center pop-up clinic in Mattapan on Friday, July 30, 2021

Tori Bedford / GBH News

“I wanted to wait because it was something that happened so suddenly, it was too fast, too fast,” Aime said. “Before there are new drugs, you have to do research, and the research has to take a while. “

After the state’s mass immunization clinics closed in May, health officials focused on targeting hard-to-reach populations, opening pop-up clinics in places of worship, health centers for seniors, YMCAs and other community organizations. As of last week, the DPH mobile vaccination program has delivered more than 85,000 doses through 1,577 state-sponsored and community vaccination clinics across the state, including the Vax Express, Market Basket clinics, clinics schools, community clinics with worship centers, community organizations and cultural groups all organize events, according to the Office of Health and Human Services.

A spokesperson for the city’s mobile vaccination effort told GBH News that the Boston Public Health Commission does not have public data on the number of people vaccinated at clinics in the city.

In pop-up clinics like the Church of God, Boston Medical Center distributed 1,223 doses of the vaccine. Over a slightly longer period, since February, BMC has distributed approximately 41,000 vaccines to mobile clinics across Boston. Black and Latino residents make up 68% of those vaccinated in clinics.

The effort has been painstaking in a hard-hit section of Dorchester and Mattapan, the neighborhood with the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated residents in the city, 40.9%. In these neighborhoods, clinics fought against the misinformation circulating among Haitian immigrants and a long-standing mistrust of the health care system among black Americans rooted in a history of abuse.

Mattapan Community Health Center has been running a small vaccination clinic at its Blue Hill Avenue facility since December and has offered free walk-in vaccines. More than 2,000 people have received their first dose of vaccine and unvaccinated patients are offered doses on site during their doctor’s visits.

“We find that most people are saying no,” said Guale Valdez, CEO of the center. “The majority of our patients, over 90%, identify as black or brown, and that’s where the biggest hesitation is. “

The health center hosts town halls and broadcasts public service announcements that include testimonials from clinic staff explaining the reasons for getting vaccinated: protecting family members, traveling and visiting elderly loved ones. Still, Valdez says reluctance is pervasive and difficult to fight.

“What we are being told is that it will cause infertility, that there are trackers in the vaccine, that not enough time has been given to develop the vaccine, that it is not sure, ”Valdez said. “We are responding to this with very rational and very encouraging facts. We always approach anyone who is interested, to whom we speak, in a culturally respective way as well, in the languages ​​we speak here, English, Haitian Creole and Spanish.

Emmanuel Dieujuste, 53, resident of Dorchester, receives a dose of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up clinic in Dorchester on Sunday, August 1, 2021

Tori Bedford / GBH News

Emmanuel Dieujuste, a Dorchester resident who, like Aime is Haitian, had his first injection at the Dorchester pop-up clinic after reports of increase in cases of Delta variant. But for over a year, he said he was scared of what he saw on social media sites.

“I saw on social media, it was scary,” Dieujuste said. “People have had different reactions and warned about it.”

In Mattapan, Reverend Dieufort “Keke” Fleurissaint runs a small clinic out of the Immigrant Family Services Institute on Blue Hill Avenue. The clinic vaccinated 312 people and a The outreach team regularly deploys to Place Mattapan, urging people to come and get vaccinated – but Fleuressant says some residents are uncomfortable with the idea.

“People say the vaccine was developed too quickly, that the AIDS epidemic has been unfolding for decades and that they still don’t have a vaccine to fight it,” Fleurissaint said. “People say the vaccine is designed to reduce the black race, that it contains a tracking system. Some people say the vaccine is the mark of the beast, in the apocalypse people who took the vaccine will identify with the beast. There are many myths about the vaccine.

Misinformation on social media exists in all cultures, but Fleurissaint says he is wary of misinformation coming from Haiti, which has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in any country in the world, and its impact on Mattapan, which has the largest Haitian community in the state.

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Reverend Dieufort “Keke” Fleurissaint speaks with a nurse from Boston Medical Center in a small clinic in Mattapan, Friday, July 30, 2021

Tori Bedford / GBH News

“We are facing a lot of patients who are certainly receiving misinformation regarding the vaccine, especially information from Haiti regarding the vaccine,” he said.

Another factor holding Mattapan back is a more general mistrust of the medical system within the predominantly black community, steeped in history, including an infamous 1932 study on syphilis that left men black. in Tuskegee, Alabama, suffering from the disease.

But it can make a difference if people see and hear their community leaders advocating for the vaccine.

“Voices of trust are extremely important, community leaders, pastors, priests,” Fleurissaint said. “I call Haitian radio and invite people to join me, and then I had three or four people who said, ‘I wasn’t going to get the vaccine, but the fact that you said,’ Come on now ”, I“ I am taking the vaccine. “

In a recent interview on a community station called Boston Praise Radio, Claudine Bruff-Lopes, a nurse with the New England Regional Black Nurses Association, spoke with local activist and city council candidate Leonard Lee about the wider racial disparity in the provinces. health care which she says affected the rollout of the vaccine.

“We are seeing disparities and gaps in care with blacks and browns going to the emergency room, not receiving timely emergency care, and not receiving the proper care or medication like our Caucasian siblings” , said Bruff-Lopes. ” It’s real. It happens. The cultural competence of health care providers certainly needs to be improved and not only with a black and brown community, but also with Asians and Guatemalans. We really have to be sensitive and educate ourselves about other cultures. ”

State officials say the 900 or so small mobile clinics focused on 20 hardest-hit communities is also an effort to make vaccination convenient for people like Cherlie Noel, a 35-year-old Brockton resident who does not speak English. Noel says she struggled to schedule and access a vaccine appointment until last month.

“I just couldn’t find the time,” Noel said through a Spanish translator.

Brockton resident Cherlie Noel, 35, holds her child in her arms while waiting for a vaccine at a small clinic in Mattapan, Friday, July 30, 2021

Tori Bedford / GBH News

Massachusetts state health officials last month reported a record increase in COVID-19 vaccinations with more than 19,000 new doses administered. About 65% of state residents have received at least one dose.

As long as necessary, state health officials and community leaders plan to operate smaller mobile clinics as a means of reaching non-English speakers, immigrants and communities of color.

“We have to make sure that everyone who should be vaccinated has a vaccine available to them,” Valdez said. “We’re just going to continue. We don’t have a deadline. We’re just going, we’re going to keep doing it for as long as it takes.

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