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Detroit Aims To Get More Vaccine Shots Into Arms Of Black Residents

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Detroit, a majority-Black city, just over 1 resident in every 10 has gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The city is now asking some of its biggest Black churches to serve as vaccination sites. Here's Kate Wells of Michigan Radio.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: At Fellowship Chapel in northwest Detroit, the pastor is keeping the mood light.

WENDELL ANTHONY: Did you see my lollipops over there?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, I didn’t see your lollipop.

ANTHONY: Give me the lollipop, too.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Laughter).

ANTHONY: So from the bitter to the sweet.

WELLS: Reverend Dr. Wendell Anthony has been pastor here for 34 years. He has seen what COVID has cost this church. He's lost family members, close friends. He's presided over their funerals. But every weekend for over a month now, his church has become a vaccination clinic for seniors. One of them, a woman in a wheelchair, asked the pastor, can you guys do more campaigning to get people to come here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: 'Cause so many of us are not taking a shot, to encourage them to come out and take the shot.

ANTHONY: I was just talking to her about that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

ANTHONY: We are doing that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

ANTHONY: And, you know, we put it on videos. We have flyers.

WELLS: So far, just 13% of Detroiters have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. That is one of the lowest rates in the entire state. It's about half as much as the neighboring suburban counties. And Reverend Anthony knows that hesitancy around the vaccine is real. It's one of the reasons he wants to do these clinics here, so people can ask him, did you get your vaccine?

ANTHONY: Yeah, I did. And it didn't hurt.

WELLS: Ada Strong was hesitant at first.

ADA STRONG: Because when I used to take the flu shot, I would get very, very sick.

WELLS: What convinced her was hearing from people who have gotten the shot and were fine. Now the vaccine doesn't feel as scary as COVID itself.

STRONG: Because you know what? I would hate to have it and be lying in bed and couldn't breathe. I couldn't imagine that. You know what I mean?

WELLS: But she still hasn't been able to convince her adult son to get it, even though he has chronic lung disease.

STRONG: But he said, Mom, I don't want to take it. I said, but I don't understand. You're going to die if you don't take it, Guy. And he said, Mom, I don't want it.

WELLS: Hesitancy isn't the only obstacle. Just getting access to the vaccine is a major issue. The Detroit Health Department has turned the convention center downtown into a mass vaccination site. But that is 12 miles from this neighborhood or an-hour-and-15-minute bus ride. And many of the vaccines allocated to Detroit have gone to hospitals and big health systems. Mayor Mike Duggan says that doesn't help Black Detroiters who are less likely to have primary care physicians or ties to the big hospitals.

MIKE DUGGAN: Just because you send vaccines to a hospital in a poor community doesn't mean the neighbors are the ones who get into the hospital. And that's why this type of community outreach is so important.

WELLS: But the city's outreach to churches so far is limited to just five churches one day a week. The health department is also doing some mobile events targeted at teachers, autoworkers and nursing homes. Overall, the city has given out more than 100,000 doses. But people who work in Detroit are eligible, too, and those nonresidents have gotten nearly 40% of the city health department's doses. That means about 60% of the shots have gone to actual Detroiters.

Earlier this week, the mayor announced that they are planning to open a second mass vaccination site in the northwest part of the city. That's the same neighborhood as Fellowship Chapel. Reverend Anthony says here they have done about 2,000 vaccinations, and they've got more demand than they can handle.

ANTHONY: We overflowed. And there just needs to be more of this.

WELLS: For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELVON LAMARR ORGAN TRIO'S "FROM THE STREETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.