When the Reggie Lewis Center mass vaccination site opened a few months ago, the idea from the get-go was to appeal to the local communities like the South End – and particularly to make it easy for skeptical Black and brown residents in those communities to access information and the vaccine right in their backyard if they so choose.
To the astonishment of many, when it opened, the community really didn’t come.
Initially, most of the appointments were taken by people from other parts of the city, or more likely, from far-flung suburbs where there was a clamor and an ease for grabbing appointments as soon as they appeared online. So it was, the lines for vaccines didn’t initially look like the community around it.
Now, the operator of the Center – CIC Health – and its partners in the state, Roxbury Community College, the Black Boston COVID Coalition and Mass General Brigham have debuted a community outreach program for Mission Hill, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, South End, Dorchester, Mattapan, Chinatown, Roslindale and Hyde Park. Anyone living in those communities, and eligible to be vaccinated, has direct and unimpeded access to 50 percent of the daily vaccine appointments before the general public.
“We know that there are folks still trying to get access and find out where to get it,” said Shana Bryant, who is doing outreach on the program for CIC Health. “There are still the wait and see folks too. We now know that by the end of April everyone will be eligible, so wait times could increase dramatically. The turnover with this program is very quick – a callback within two or three days and getting them booked within the week. We want to encourage those who have a positive experience to communicate that to friends and family. We have very unique access here and the ability to vaccinate many people in the community. That will allow us to experience the joys of being around friends and family and doing the things we enjoy again.”
The allocation in the program is no small number.
At this point, the Reggie is distributing about 2,000 vaccinations per day, so residents of the South End have a special deal on at last 1,000 appointments per day at the Center. Those reserved appointments stay in the system until a day before, and then any that aren’t claimed are dumped back into the pool for the general public. While it’s not just available to people of color – but rather to any qualified resident living in the South End or the other mentioned neighborhoods – one focus group is people of color, as statistics are showing they are getting vaccinated at a lower rate than other groups.
Jeff Rogers, who lives near the Reggie, said he was open to getting the vaccine and did his research on the science behind it. He was convinced that all three were safe, but had questions about the rollout and operations pieces. Last Friday, he was able to get his second dose of the vaccine at the Reggie, and said the vaccine is a “miracle” and it couldn’t have been easier to get it in his own backyard.
“I feel very relieved now,” he said, just about an hour after getting his second dose last Friday. “We’ve been immersed in COVID-19 for a year now. If you think back to March 2020 and there’s this phantom disease and they want folks to go on lockdown…At that time, like everyone else, I was spraying my groceries with bleach. My mother is a senior citizen. I was doing everything to protect her. To think they came out with a vaccine so quickly and it’s 100 percent effective against death…That’s a miracle. To think that miracle is now available to me in my neighborhood from people I know is amazing…I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say it saved lives and saved Black lives to do it this way.”
Prior to hearing about the Reggie Lewis program, he said his faith in the vaccine was faltering because the roll out seemed so skewed towards people not in the neighborhood and people who were not Black or brown.
“It looked like a big cluster to me,” he said. “Then when the Reggie Lewis people called and set up the date, it felt real. I could tell also the people calling me back were Black people, and as a Black man, that gave me more confidence.”
Rogers qualified after calling the number for the community program, and was quickly booked into one of the special community appointments. He got a call-back within two days and was booked for his appointment a few days later. His experience was very smooth and quick, he said. There was no anxiety and he said he was impressed with how he was treated and catered to.
For Karleen Porcella, who lives only a few blocks from the Reggie Lewis, the experience was one of skepticism. From the get-go, she wasn’t sure about the vaccine, but after giving the program at Reggie Lewis a shot, she has changed her mind and is looking to do the same for everyone she knows.
“There was a lot of anxiety around COVID and the vaccine and how it rolled out,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect…There were so many hesitancies in our community to take this vaccine. The history we’ve had with health care cannot be taken for granted. I saw people waiting for hours to get appointments and waiting for hours in line to get vaccinated. I literally walked in with no wait and came in and out in 20 minutes. Having it there with people that I recognized made all the difference. Also, having it right down from my house was convenient because I didn’t have to take a day off of work and travel outside of the city to find a location. It was right here.”
Now, Porcella said she’s been telling friends and family all about the experience, the professionalism and the ease for using the special community appointments.
“We have this opportunity in the community and we’re not taking full advantage of it,” she said. “We have to step up and think about taking the vaccine. Once I got the appointment and saw how easy it was, I was telling everyone they needed to do it too.”
In addition to reserving 50 percent of the appointments, the program has also engaged in a robust campaign to flier the neighborhoods using information in eight different languages. There has also been a door-to-door neighborhood awareness campaign that seeks to get information from residents interested in getting vaccinated – allowing the CIC’s phone bank to pro-actively call and set up appointments. The phone system is also easy to use and provides translation in 240 different languages. There are also weekly town hall meetings online with trusted community groups, community health centers and elected officials.
The community partners assisting in the CIC Health community program include: Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition; The Urban League; MassVote; Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers; Chinese Progressive Association; Massachusetts Immigration & Refugee Advocacy Coalition; and City of Boston’s Office of Immigration Advancement.
To access the community preference appointments, call (617) 675-0005 and start the process of finding out qualification and appointment booking. To access the appointments online, go to www.cichealth.com/reggielewis/outreach.