Mary Altaffer/AP Photo
Elaine Chambers goes over a coronavirus vaccination pamphlet while resting after receiving the first dose of the vaccine at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination site at St. Luke's Episcopal church, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in the Bronx borough of New York.
Mary Altaffer/AP Photo
Minnie Elliott takes on a lot of responsibility as president of her residents association in Brookland Manor. During the coronavirus pandemic, the 82-year-old has been working to connect her neighbors with mental health resources, technology, groceries, and other necessities they need to survive the crisis. Through it all, she's also continuing work on the community's years-long fight against a controversial redevelopment project.
And to do this work safely, Elliott wants to get her coronavirus vaccine.
"I like to be able to go out to help my neighbors," Elliot says. "I would like to be able to go out shopping without worrying ... I would like to be able to enjoy being around my family members, because a lot of the teenagers...are not able to visit like that. So, yes, I would like to start living normal again."
But getting the vaccine wasn't easy. Each week, local jurisdictions receive new doses and make them available to those who qualify (like senior citizens). Elliott and Beth Wagner, a 27-year-old organizer with the residents association, started working together to secure an appointment for Elliott when D.C. opened registration for people aged 65 and older earlier this month. When new appointments became available, Elliott called to make a booking while Wagner tried on the website on Elliott's behalf. It took four tries, but Elliott successfully booked for her first appointment Thursday.
Elliott and Wagner aren't the only locals to team up like this: Many of the region's elders are finding that if they want a vaccine, they need to find a co-conspirator who can help them navigate the logistical and technological maze. In some places, these efforts have become more organized. A group of Montgomery County teachers created a Vaccine Hunters Instagram account to help find seniors vaccines. In D.C.'s Ward 4, neighbors are going door-to-door with flyers detailing how to register for a vaccine appointment. And now that Minnie Elliott has gotten her appointment, she and Wagner are moving on to help other seniors in their neighborhood get appointments of their own.
Wagner says the need for grassroots organizing around vaccines is a symptom of government failure, particularly in how the city works with low-income Black neighborhoods like Elliott's. So far, a disproportionate amount of vaccines have gone to wealthier neighborhoods.
"The government is supposed to be responsible for reaching out to people," Wagner says. "You have to work around people's lives— especially seniors—if you want seniors to be able to access [the vaccine]."
In response to criticisms about equity, D.C. officials have tweaked the online appointment system to make it more navigable, and they've increased staffing on the appointment phone lines. The city is also working with the D.C. Housing Authority to vaccinate seniors in public housing, and it's partnering with federally qualified health centers that serve largely low-income Black and Latino patients. Officials have also said that vaccine hesitancy among Black and Latino residents is a challenge they are focused on.
Serve DC, a branch of the Mayor's office that leads volunteer efforts, says it's developing a "volunteer engagement opportunity" to help seniors navigate vaccine registration. "We are excited to be able to...encourage this kind of civic engagement in the city; especially as a means to support both the needs of volunteers and residents in underserved wards such as 7 and 8," a spokesperson for the office wrote in an emailed statement.
The Vaccine Hunters group in Montgomery County has also noticed racial gaps in vaccine access. Maisie Lynch, a teacher at Sherwood High School who founded the group, estimates that she and her six fellow volunteers—all teachers with full-time jobs—have worked to get at least 200 seniors in the county vaccinated. But she says the people who reached out on Instagram and in email were largely white and upper- or middle-class. Now, the group is pivoting their focus to try and help with outreach to Black and Latino residents. Four of their volunteers speak Spanish.
"We're really trying to reach out to Latino and Black communities. We've been on some Spanish radio, Spanish television, but we're not getting any support from up above," says Lynch.
Over the past few days, the group's success in securing appointments has brought a wave of media attention—and as a result, they've been flooded with requests for help and had to shut their Google form down.
"We woke up to hundreds of voicemails, hundreds of emails," Lynch says.
Lynch says her team doesn't have any "magic" way of securing vaccines. They just have a list of websites—which they have since consolidated in a public spreadsheet —where people can register for appointments that they constantly refresh until they see openings. Some hospitals and providers give the public a heads up about when they'll offer new appointments—but other slots open up at seemingly random intervals.
In between teaching over Zoom, Lynch and her teammates often go in-person to vaccine sites to confirm how many appointments are available that day. They've been staying up until 1:30 each morning to get appointments. Lynch says she knows they could do more, if only they had the resources to bolster their outreach. She's confident that she could put together an army of people to help specifically with underserved populations in the county.
"Politicians and whoever's at the top: Let's just do this and get this done," Lynch says. "And if you need help from the community, tell us. There's plenty of people who are willing to support."
In D.C.'s Manor Park neighborhood, ANC 4B06 Commissioner Tiffani Nichole Johnson is worried about registering seniors for vaccines, and getting them to the vaccine sites.
"A number of these senior citizens are using WMATA transportation, so they're using Metro Access," Johnson says. "Having to put all of that together in a finite period of time and do it all by themselves takes time, and I'm very concerned that a lot of senior citizens are just gonna be like 'OK, it's just not worth the hassle.'"
As she spoke to DCist/WAMU, Johnson was preparing to print flyers with information about how to register a vaccine.
"I definitely would like to get across that the Mayor's doing the best she can, but it's up to us to really make sure that we're disseminating the information to everyone and what we're disseminating is correct," Johnson says.
Courtesy of Tiffani Nichole Johnson/
A flyer Ward 4 ANC Tiffani Nichole Johnson has been passing out in her Manor Park neighborhood.
Courtesy of Tiffani Nichole Johnson/
For Johnson, helping with vaccine outreach is especially personal: She grew up in the neighborhood she represents, and she remembers how her elderly neighbors looked out for her when she was a child.
"We are a community ... and during this time especially, that stands true," Johnson says. "We send meals to those who need it. We look out for our children. We look out for our elders. And so that's why it's important to me. This village raised me, kept me safe ... and now I give back as a testament to them, because without them I wouldn't be here."
Lynch, in Montgomery County, says every day is a reminder of the high stakes of this work and the urgency for so many residents. She recently got an email from a man who profusely thanked her for getting his wife a vaccine, because he's in hospice care and he is hoping that his wife can get to see him before he dies.
"We have to move fast...because some people really feel like they're on borrowed time," Lynch says.
Lynch thinks Montgomery County has the will to vaccinate seniors, but there's a gap in outreach. Minnie Elliott, in D.C.'s Brookland Manor neighborhood, says she's noticed communication issues, too.
"When...they wanted everyone to vote...they sent out flyers and flooded everything with all the voting," says Elliott. "All of a sudden now, it's hard to get these things done for the people who did the voting and put the Council and the Mayor in. All of a sudden, they act like they can't do any of these things."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.