The Mattapan mother never considered herself an “anti-vaxxer,” but despite stepped-up incentives to increase COVID-19 vaccinations in her neighborhood, she won’t be getting one.
“I’m hearing that these types of vaccines have been in the works for ... many, many years. If that’s the case, they should have … many, many answers,” said the longtime resident who has a list of questions about the vaccine. (Like others interviewed for this story, she asked not to be identified for fear of being ostracized because of her views.)
Despite the chance to win a $1 million state vaccination lottery and other incentives, Mattapan remains a troubling spot for vaccines. The neighborhood, which has felt the devastation of the coronavirus, has the lowest number of Boston residents who have received the shot so far, according to city data.
Just 37 percent of Mattapan’s nearly 27,000residents are fully immunized, and over 43 percent had received only one dose of the vaccine as of June 22.
By contrast, 53 percent of Hyde Park’s residents are fully vaccinated compared to 59 percent in Roxbury and 70 percent in the South End. Citywide, 57.5 percent are fully vaccinated.
In recent weeks, state, city, and local leaders have been working to boost the vaccination numbers in Mattapan, where more than 70 percent of the residents are Black, the median household income is nearly $56,000, and the neighborhood is home to a large population of Haitian immigrants.
In mid-June, the state launched its Vax Express — a commuter rail train turned vaccination clinic — at the Blue Hill Avenue station in Mattapan, as part of Governor Charlie Baker’s attempts to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates in the state’s hardest-hit communities.
The local health center, working with the city, has been offering walk-in and at-home services to anyone needing the COVID-19 shot, and residents can schedule appointments at CVS and Walgreens. The center has also held educational town halls on the matter, and local leaders hosted a health and wellness day, urging attendees to get the shot.
But the vaccination numbers in Mattapan have stayed low.
“We’re doing everything that we can, but it’s not enough,” said Guale Valdez, chief executive of Mattapan Community Health Center, who said he has seen a dramatic decline in vaccinations at the center since they peaked in March.
He and other community leaders point to misinformation about the vaccine, a lack of trust in government, and inaccessibility to the shots.
“We have a mixed population that is very diverse … and people have some misconceptions,” said Fatima Ali-Salaam, chair of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council, who said she suspects residents are relying on misinformation circulating on social media.
At the council’s virtual meeting last month, Valdez made “a plea for help” in spreading the word about available immunizations.
“We can’t forget that there’s still a population [in Mattapan] that has not been vaccinated in a way that other neighborhoods [in Boston have been],” he told the group.
In an interview, Valdez said he’s trying to get the message out that the vaccines are safe and easily available. He recounted one Mattapan resident expressing fear that trackers were injected into people through the immunization.
“We just tell them, ‘The needles are too small,’” he said.
Marty Martinez, Boston’s chief of health and human services, said the city aims to have half of every Boston neighborhood vaccinated soon. And he remains optimistic about Mattapan.
Martinez said the department is now focusing on the “next set of folks,” those who need the coronavirus vaccine to be convenient, accessible, and in their neighborhoods.
He acknowledged that the city has to do the “legwork” to create real access to residents, including Mattapan’s large Haitian community.
“That takes a lot more time and work,” Martinez said. “There’s no question that Mattapan is one of those neighborhoods.”
At the first annual Stroll of the District recently, the focus was on health and wellness. The event, hosted by Mattapan Square Main Streets, which supports local businesses, enticed patrons to visit merchants, earn prizes, and, maybe even get a COVID-19 shot.
One Mattapan resident said he sees the benefit of the incentives, including pop-up clinics. But, he said he’s uneasy about anyone other than his primary care doctor administering the vaccine.
“I’m not used to just anybody sticking a needle in me, I don’t know them. If my doctor scheduled it, I would be a lot more comfortable,” the man said.
Valdez said the health center is planning other incentives to boost the vaccination numbers, such as social media and door-to-door campaigns, informational videos in multiple languages, and ads about vaccination appointments on a local Haitian Creole radio station.
Atyia Martin, a member of the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition, said she is encouraged by the efforts, but said that health officials should do a better job educating families about the safety of the vaccine.
“People of color across this state, particularly Black people, did not get access to the things that they needed,” Martin said. “You don’t really have a strategy that’s going to meet people where they are.”
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.