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Doctors are bringing COVID-19 vaccines to the doorstep of the needy

Throughout Boston, efforts are underway to inoculate residents of housing for the elderly and disabled.

At Torre Unidad housing development in the South End, Shuiying Cheung-Ma, 75, received the COVID-19 vaccine from nursing student Sofie Ghitman on Friday.
At Torre Unidad housing development in the South End, Shuiying Cheung-Ma, 75, received the COVID-19 vaccine from nursing student Sofie Ghitman on Friday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Dr. Alister Martin, an emergency physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, has seen firsthand where the sickest COVID-19 patients are coming from: Chelsea. East Boston. Roxbury. Mattapan.

And once the vaccines became available, he started to worry about the frail, elderly, and disabled people in those neighborhoods, who have limited ability to get to a vaccination site.

“You have to bring the vaccine to them,” said Martin, a doctor with an activist streak and a concern for social justice. “If you don’t get to those folks, you will always have embers of COVID burning.”

Martin talked about it with an emergency doctor at Boston Medical Center who is also a politician, Jon Santiago, a state representative who is running for mayor.

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As Martin tells it, he and Santiago hatched a plan to get the vaccines to the neighborhoods employing the methods of political campaigns — phone banks, texts, knocking on doors, connecting with community leaders.

“It’s exactly as if we were trying to get folks out to vote,” said Martin, who leads a voter registration effort based in the Mass General emergency department. Adapting the “get out the vote” symbol, they called it GOTVax — get out the vaccine — and recruited 160 physicians, nurses, and medical students, Martin said.

Martin and Santiago approached the Boston Housing Authority about setting up clinics. They didn’t need to argue their case. The authority was also working on plans to hold vaccination clinics in housing developments and welcomed the doctors’ help reaching some 4,000 elderly and disabled people who live in 35 buildings around the city, said Lydia Agro, the agency’s chief of staff and public affairs.

The housing authority has partnered with Boston EMS, the Massachusetts Independent Pharmacists Association, and community health centers, and started its vaccination effort earlier this month. It was happy to have GOTVax join the effort.

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“Dr. Martin’s team is a great help to us,” Agro said. “We’re just trying to get as many clinics done as quickly as we can.” About 17 clinics have been held so far in housing for the elderly and disabled, including four by Martin’s team, she said.

GOTVax started on March 12, converging on three buildings to vaccinate more than 200 residents. They resumed their effort Friday at Torre Unidad in the South End, where 96 residents received the vaccine. The volunteer medical professionals called and texted all the residents ahead of time to let them know of this opportunity. Then they knocked on doors.

“The thing that surprised me,” Martin said, “you knock on the door. You don’t hear, ‘Who is it?’ You hear, ‘Come in.’ That’s the population we’re dealing with — very kind, very generous.”

With doses provided by the South End Community Health Center and funding from the Boston Foundation, GOTVax has hired staff and plans to hold clinics every Friday, Martin said.

Many residents are very happy to get the vaccine, because they’re eager to reopen their community rooms and resume activities, said Agro, of the housing authority.

“There are a few residents who are nervous and not sure they want to get vaccinated,” she said. “We are doing our best to encourage them.” Many start to come around after seeing their neighbors get the shot.

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“This is what vaccine equity looks like,” Agro said, “Bringing vaccine to where people live, meeting them where they are.”



Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.