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At Roxbury vaccination site meant to expand access, few people of color line up for shots

People waited for the doors to open at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center in Roxbury on Tuesday afternoon.
People waited for the doors to open at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center in Roxbury on Tuesday afternoon.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

They traveled from Beacon Hill, West Roxbury, Brookline, and Cambridge. One 78-year-old man, guided by his son as he shuffled across the slushy sidewalk with his walker, said he lived in North Smithfield, R.I., but worked as a certified public accountant in Massachusetts.

State and local officials heralded the opening of a COVID-19 mass vaccination site in Roxbury — the heart of Black life in Boston — as a step toward fixing the gulf in inoculation rates between white residents and their Black and Latino counterparts, who remain starkly under-vaccinated by comparison. But the residents who snagged the first appointments at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center Tuesday afternoon were overwhelmingly white and from affluent enclaves in Boston and beyond.

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Jack O’Connor, 75, a retired health care marketing professional from West Roxbury, observed the lopsided demographics while he waited the mandatory 15 minutes following his first dose.

“I’d say there were 40 people in there ‘round the time I was in there. Maybe five” were Black people, O’Connor said.

The clinic at the Lewis center at Roxbury Community College was slated to begin injections Monday — the first day in which residents 75 and older were eligible for doses under Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination timeline — but those plans were scuttled in advance of the snowstorm. The Boston Public Health Commission is running the site with a staff of 40 until the state takes over at the end of the month. The commission is scheduling 1,100 appointments a week — about 220 a day, including Tuesday.

According to the state’s website, the Massachusetts vaccination program is intended for people who live, work, or study in the state.

The vaccination clinic is open to all eligible populations statewide, but Marty Martinez, Boston’s chief of health and human services, said the city “absolutely” had racial equity in mind when it selected the center as a mass injection site.

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“It’s at the heart of the city’s COVID response since we’ve been tackling it,” he said. “We wanted a site in a community of color.”

Still, Martinez was not surprised to hear that the majority of people getting inoculated at the site on Tuesday were white.

“There’s no question that right now the overwhelming majority of people who are getting vaccinated across the state are white,” he added. “That’s still true — even though that location is in Roxbury.”

The succession of white faces going in and out of the center mirrors statewide data showing that white people are being vaccinated at a far higher rate than Black, Latino, and Asian residents. As of Jan. 26, 43 percent of people who have been fully vaccinated are white, according to the state Department of Public Health. Meanwhile, just under 4 percent of those who’ve received both doses are Asian, more than 3 percent are Latino, and less than 3 percent are Black.

(The state’s vaccination data on race and ethnicity is incomplete as a result of inconsistent reporting by vaccinators, which is why those figures don’t add up to 100 percent. For 28 percent of fully vaccinated recipients, their race and ethnicity is labeled “other” or “unknown” while about 20 percent are categorized as “multiracial.”)

To combat the trend, the city has set aside about 15 percent of its appointments for people who register for a vaccine though community organizations, such as the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition and the Greater Boston Latino Network.

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Eligible seniors can also call 311, the city’s help line. They will be transferred to someone from the Age Strong Commission, who will make the appointment for them over the phone. As for walk-ins, Martinez said, “We have to send them away. . . . We don’t have extra doses on site.”

All of the publicly available appointments at the Lewis center were snapped up within two hours of being made available, and the slots set aside for community organizations also are filling up, according to Martinez. The center is fully booked for the rest of the week and will start taking appointments for next week on Thursday morning.

Caitlin McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the commission, said city health officials have been trying to get the word out about the Lewis center through social media, traditional media, and community partners, like churches and local health centers.

Meanwhile, the city is planning for smaller vaccination sites in diverse neighborhoods, Martinez said, but when and where those sites will open will depend on the availability of doses from the state. By the time Massachusetts moves into the third part of Phase 2 of its vaccination plan, when essential workers become eligible, Martinez said, “several of those clinics” will be open.

The Massachusetts rollout has been criticized for the slow pace of vaccinations. Activists also have raised concerns about vaccine access in hard-hit communities of color. Last week, Representative Ayanna Pressley sent a letter to Governor Charlie Baker urging him to prioritize Black and Latino residents for inoculations.

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“I write to implore you to act with urgency and put the health and safety of our Black and brown communities at the center of the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 response and ongoing vaccination deployment plans,” the letter said.

Harvey Wartosky, a financial planner, and his wife, Joëlle, both 78 and white, live in Beacon Hill. They arrived early for their vaccinations at the Lewis center with manila envelopes in hand, containing copies of their Medicare cards and printouts confirming their appointments.

Booking an appointment online was “a complete nightmare,” Wartosky said. One of the young employees at his firm managed to find open appointments for him and his wife at the Lewis center moments before all the slots were taken. The state’s prioritization process also appalled Wartosky, who has seen friends in other states vaccinated while he and other Massachusetts seniors waited their turn behind other groups, like inmates.

“I wrote a letter to the governor,” Wartosky said. “I found it incomprehensible that [a prisoner] who is costing me $25,000 a year and taking away from society would have priority over me, who is a contributor to society.”

A little over an hour later, the Wartoskys were out the door with round stickers on their chests proudly advertising their ranks among the vaccinated, the country’s most exclusive new club.

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Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan. Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.