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Just over half of Detroit Health Dept. vaccines are going to actual Detroiters

an african american woman holds up her sleeve in order to receive the COVID-19 vaccine
Zoran Zeremski
Adobe Stock

On a cold, sunny Saturday in March, Reverend Dr. Wendell Anthony wants to keep the mood light. Relaxed.

“Did you see my lollipops over there?” he asks, pointing down the hall with a laugh. “We’ve got lollipops! So, from the bitter to the sweet,” he says, moving through the socially-distanced crowd at Fellowship Chapel in northwest Detroit.

Every Saturday for the last several weeks, the parking lot, halls, and event space at this historically Black church - one of the largest in the city - has been turned into a vaccination clinic for those 60 and older.

Just 13% of Detroiters have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. That’s one of the lowest rates in the entire state. It’s about half as much as the neighboring suburban counties.  And even as the pandemic has killed Black residents at higher rates, access remains an issue: just 56% of vaccines distributed by the Detroit Health Department are going to residents, the city told Michigan Radio on Thursday. The rest are going to non-residents who work in the city, or are "unknown."

Rev. Anthony knows too well what COVID-19 has cost his parishioners. He’s presided over the virtual funerals. He’s buried members of his own family, and his close friends. Now, the hope is getting those like Ada Strong, who’s arrived here with her daughter and son-in-law, vaccinated. 

a line of people waiting in a drab beige hallway to get the covid-19 vaccine
Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The line inside Fellowship Chapel on Saturday, as senior citizens wait for their turn to be vaccinated.

“Can you do a little more campaigning, or whatever, ‘cause so many of us are not taking the shot?” Strong asks the pastor. “To encourage them to come out and take the shot?”

Rev. Anthony nods, knowingly. “I was just talking... about that. We are doing that. And we put it on videos. We have flyers. I’ve done it, so people can see. Other ministers have. You know, people are still hesitant.”

Demonstrating safety, building trust 

A poll in October found that 75% of Black Detroiters said they were unlikely to get the vaccine, compared to just 30% of white Detroiters. That mistrust of the health system is logical, given a history of systemic mistreatment and discrimination, says Anthony.

“Because I know the history behind it, going back to Tuskegee,” he says. “And even before that, the experimentation has been done on Black folk, which makes us not trust the health community - in particular when it comes to things like this. We don't want to be the guinea pigs.”

That’s one of the reasons he wants to do these clinics here, so people can talk to him directly. At the clinic, one woman asks Rev. Anthony: did you get your shot? 

“Yeah, I did,” he says. “And it didn’t hurt!” Any side effects, Strong asks? “No ma’am. The only thing I had was a little soreness.’

Strong herself was hesitant initially. “Because when I used to get the flu shot, I would get very, very sick.”

But hearing from people who’ve gotten the shot and are fine, convinced her. Now the vaccine doesn’t feel as threatening as COVID itself. “Because you know what? I would hate to have it, and be lying in bed and couldn’t breathe. I can’t imagine that, you know what I mean? So I said, ‘I’m just gonna just take it and take a chance!’”

Still, her adult son remains unpersuaded. And that frightens her, because he has chronic lung disease.

“But he said, ‘Mom I don’t wanna take it.’ And I said, ‘But I don’t understand. You’re gonna die if you don’t take it, uh, Guy.’ And he said ‘Mom, I don’t want it.’”

Tangie and Robert Atwater sit on metal folding chairs for the requisite 15 minutes of monitoring post-shot. They’ve got family members who are “kind of nervous to get it,” Robert says.

“We were trying to tell them, ‘It’s nothing to be nervous about.’ Because this COVID-19 don’t discriminate against anybody. Young, old...it takes everybody. Just go ahead and get the shot.”

But this kind of clinic may help persuade them.

“Oh yeah, I think that’s probably what they’re looking at,” Robert Atwater says. “Since this is a Black neighborhood and things like that. Seeing how it’s going on in the neighborhood. How people react to the shot.”

For Atwater, there’s a sense of relief now, too.

“You feel a lot better because you got the first dosage," he says. "So you’re not too much worried about maybe on the down the line, you might catch anything.”

But hesitancy is far from the only obstacle. Just getting access to the vaccine is a major issue for many residents.

Improving access

The Detroit Health Department has turned the TCF Convention Center into a mass vaccination site.

But that’s downtown, 12 miles away from Fellowship Chapel’s neighborhood. The bus ride takes an hour and 15 minutes.

And so many of the vaccines allocated to Detroit by the state have gone to hospitals and big health systems.

“The hospital distribution systems being used in this country for COVID vaccines, are being done through electronic health records, to people with primary care doctors,” Mayor Mike Duggan said at a press conference last month.

“And the Black and brown communities are not tied into primary care doctors, are not tied into primary care doctors and hospitals, at the same rate... Just because you send vaccines to a hospital in a poor community doesn't mean the neighbors are the ones who get into the hospital. And that’s why this community outreach is so important.”

But the city’s outreach to churches, so far, is limited to just five churches, on Saturdays. The health department is also doing some mobile events targeted at teachers, auto workers and nursing homes.

As of March 10, the Detroit Health Department has given out more than 123,573 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Yet just over half of those have gone to actual residents, according to data provided to Michigan Radio by the city. While it's not featured on the city's vaccine dashboard, about roughly 70,000 (56%) of those shots have gone to residents. Another 45,000 (37%) have gone to non-residents who are eligible because they work in the city; and the rest are unknown. 

Of the doses given to Detroiters by the city, roughly 48,000 (70%) are Black .White Detroiters make up 8,622 of those shots, while 1,560 are categorized as "other" and 10,759 are "unknown/did not report."

Some 79% of Detroit residents are Black, according to census data. 

Earlier this week, the Mayor announced the city’s planning to open a second mass vaccination site in northwest Detroit, closer to Fellowship Chapel.

Reverend Anthony says here, they’ve done about 2,000. And they’re getting more calls and requests for appointments than they can handle. “We overflowed,” he says, looking around the room at the dozens of Black senior citizens, their caregivers and family members, healthcare workers and volunteers. “There just needs to be more. More of this.”

Note: this story was updated on March 12 at 2:30 pm. 

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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