When Black residents walk through the doors of the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury this weekend for their COVID-19 vaccine, they’ll see people who look like them — administering shots, registering voters, giving away boxes of groceries, and handing out warm cups of soup for their journey home.
The Black History Month vaccination drive at the Lewis Center on Saturday and Sunday is the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of relentless advocacy by the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition — a group of more than 250 Black civic, business, and public health leaders who foresaw with tragic prescience the devastation the pandemic would wreak on communities of color. The coalition hopes the drive will not only help boost vaccination rates among Black Bostonians, but begin to transform their relationship with a health care system that has long mistreated them.
Earlier this week, canvassers fanned out to Black barbershops and beauty salons in Grove Hall, posting fliers in nine languages — including Spanish, Swahili, Somali, and Haitian Creole — advertising the event with a special link and phone number for registering for a shot. Members are tapping into their vast networks to reach those who have struggled to book an appointment online or make sense of the state’s evolving eligibility criteria.
The coalition is partnering with CIC Health, which took over operations at the injection site from the City of Boston on Thursday, to ensure Black people are not left behind in the state’s vaccination campaign. The site plans to ramp up capacity to 800 shots a day, starting Saturday, with the eventual goal of inoculating 2,500 recipients daily. Beginning this week, half of the appointments at the site will be reserved for the coalition and other community groups to fill.
This weekend, the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition intends to fill them all.
“A lot of times, things come into Black communities . . . and the quality is very low. We get the leftovers. We get the afterthoughts,” said coalition member Atyia Martin, a diversity and inclusion consultant. But this event, Martin said, is an opportunity to offer Black residents a “high-quality experience.”
“We’ve been treated so crappy for so long,” added Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE. “Can we change the narrative?”
Clyburn Crawford is one of the coalition’s founding members. They started convening virtually last March as coronavirus cases exploded worldwide. In the beginning, the coalition was just former state senator Dianne Wilkerson and a handful of friends. They have met on Zoom for hours nearly every Saturday since, and over time, their numbers grew.
“No one was saying at the beginning that Black and brown people are going to suffer worse. That was the point,” Wilkerson said of the group’s origins. “Intuitively, we knew that. Because if it was connected to health, we were already — in the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston — number one in all that’s worse and the last in all that’s good.”
Their prognostications proved correct. In early April, the Globe noted that predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, like Mattapan and East Boston, were experiencing high concentrations of COVID-19 cases. Meanwhile, deaths and hospitalization rates among Black Americans were spiking nationwide.
“The proof is in the pudding and the pudding showed clear disparities — racial disparities,” said coalition member Mukiya Baker-Gomez. “When we looked at it, we came to very clear conclusions about what was occurring and what was occurring was institutional racism, plain and simple.”
Yet the official response to the outbreak has not reflected the grim reality of the crisis, coalition members said. Testing sites in Boston’s Black neighborhoods, they recalled, were initially few and far between. And personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves, was hard to come by for Black service workers.
They were alarmed last spring when Massachusetts released guidelines recommending how hospitals should ration life-saving equipment, like ventilators, if it was necessary. The initial guidance — which prioritized those without underlying conditions that disproportionately affect people of color — was devised by a panel of medical experts, and not a single member was Black. (The guidelines were later revised after widespread criticism and additional consultation with Black doctors.)
“We are dying and it seems like no one is listening to us. No one is paying attention,” said Priscilla Flint-Banks, of the nonprofit Black Economic Justice Institute, at a Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition press conference last May. “It’s time out for us to be treated like three-fifths of a person.”
The group’s advocacy has touched on all parts of the pandemic. Early on, they met with Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker to discuss their demands for more testing and better policies for curbing transmission in hard-hit neighborhoods. They protested at the State House last summer against Baker’s plans to ease virus restrictions. They rallied a few months later outside Brigham and Women’s Hospital to protest what they viewed as insufficient efforts by the hospital to enroll Black patients in a clinical trial for the Moderna vaccine.
Throughout the year, their members have distributed PPE and gift cards to needy families, and done wellness checks on isolated seniors. The coalition has hosted virtual town halls featuring Black doctors who took questions about the virus and the vaccines.
The work is deeply personal and emotionally grueling. After all, the stakes are life and death. Since the pandemic began, tragedy has brushed many of the members’ lives. Relatives have been hospitalized. Siblings have lost jobs. Loved ones have passed away.
Coalition member Chioma Nnaji, program director of the Multicultural AIDS Coalition, said the pandemic has been a “constant trigger” for Black people, continuously reminded by their elected officials’ clumsy response to the outbreak of all the ways Black lives are “devalued.” And this perceived apathy — or worse, antipathy — from government leaders, Nnaji believes, is the root of many Black Americans’ distrust of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Wilkerson agreed: “It’s easy to try to encapsulate it in the words ‘Tuskegee’ or ‘forced sterilization,’ but it’s so much more than that,” she said, ticking off a sordid history of racist medical abuse Black Americans have endured. “It’s about last year. It’s about the initial rollout.”
According to the most recent data reported to the Department of Public Health, white residents in Massachusetts have received at least 12 times as many doses of the vaccine as Black residents while their proportion of the population in the state is just 9 times higher.
The coalition isn’t trying to convince everyone they should get vaccinated. Rather, members say, they’re hoping to empower people with information to make an educated decision. They also see this weekend as an opportunity to reimagine and rebuild Black residents’ fractured relationship with medical institutions.
Dr. Ellana Stinson, the new Mass General Brigham medical director of the inoculation site at the Reggie Lewis Center, has recruited about 65 Black doctors and nurses to volunteer to administer doses this weekend. That effort alone will make a difference in repairing trust, she said.
“I think we could be a model for other communities,” said Stinson, a coalition member and Roxbury resident. Black patients — accustomed to having their pain downplayed or dismissed by clinicians — will likely feel more comfortable and less anxious surrounded by people and providers who look like them.
“You don’t want to be the only one,” she added. “No one wants to be the only one.”