Francell Simmons didn’t wince as the needle plunged into her left arm.
The 63-year-old grandmother from Roxbury, who has multiple sclerosis and other health conditions, initially was apprehensive about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but her doctor convinced her it was safe.
“It’s been tough. I’ve lost people — relatives, friends,” she said, including her son-in-law, Frederick “Fred the Godson” Thomas, a popular Bronx rapper, who died of coronavirus complications in April.
But, now, she said, she’s looking forward to brighter days ahead.
“Hopefully, by late summer, I’ll be able to go on a nice trip and be around some people,” she said. “I want to live.”
Simmons was one of roughly 300 people who were inoculated Friday, the second day of CIC Health’s “soft launch” at the vaccination site at the Reggie Lewis Center at Roxbury Community College.
CIC Heath took over the injection site from the City of Boston, which had been operating it since the beginning of February. The company, which is also running mass vaccination sites at Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, was contracted by the state to expand capacity at the Lewis Center.
Starting Saturday, CIC Health will begin administering 800 shots of the Pfizer vaccine per day, with the goal of ramping up to 2,500 shots daily before the end of March. The indoor track at the Lewis Center has been outfitted with 20 vaccination stations in preparation for the volume.
Mass General Brigham is providing medical oversight of the facility.
Brigham and Women’s surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande, co-founder and executive chairman of CIC Health, said launching a mass vaccination site at the Lewis Center is “part of the state’s comprehensive equity initiative” to ensure communities, such as Roxbury, that have been disproportionately affected by the virus have access to the vaccines.
“Mass sites like this are just part of the solution,” Gawande said. “That solution includes small sites, medium sites, hospitals, community health centers, and other places that are administering vaccines, and also mobile centers going out to people’s homes.... We need it all to be able to get to everyone.”
To ensure that doses reach the people living in Roxbury and surrounding neighborhoods, half of the appointments at the Lewis Center are being set aside every week, so community groups, such as the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition, can fill them with eligible local residents.
“As we know, COVID has impacted this community a lot more than other communities here in this area,” said Dr. Ellana Stinson, the site’s associate medical director, “so we want to make sure we get this right and we do it in a way that is safe, fair, and equitable.”
This Saturday and Sunday, the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition — a group of more than 250 Black civic, business, public health, and faith leaders — is working with CIC Health to host a vaccination drive at the Lewis Center in honor of Black History Month. The coalition is hoping to fill all 800 appointments, or half the available 1,600 slots this weekend, through a robust, multilingual outreach and canvassing campaign.
As of Thursday, all of the Saturday appointments reserved for the coalition had been filled, according to Shana Bryant, the site’s community communications manager. Most of the available Sunday slots had been secured, too, she added.
“I think people are excited to come somewhere they’re familiar with, and CIC is really making an effort to do this right,” she said.
Bryant, who lives in Grove Hall and attended Roxbury Community College, credited CIC Health for partnering with local groups, like the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition, and listening to them to ensure that people of color are not only vaccinated, but feel comfortable with the process.
Stinson, the medical director, for example, has recruited about 65 Black physicians and nurses to volunteer to administer doses this weekend.
“I think it’s important for Black people and other people of color that want to get a shot have somewhere that they feel safe and comfortable,” Bryant said, “and that’s inclusive and that’s in their community.”