Vulnerable residents face many barriers to COVID vaccination. These community groups are working to fill the gaps.

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Daeja Baker outside of her home in Polish Hill. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Daeja Baker outside of her home in Polish Hill. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Manuel Lopez, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Ecuador, had no idea he could even be vaccinated until volunteers from Casa San José called him.

“I’ve never thought about going to get the vaccine,” he said. “But when they called me from Casa San José, I said, sure, and I got it. They helped me with everything.” 

The 65-year-old Mount Oliver resident has worked in a recycling plant consistently throughout the pandemic, with the exception of two weeks he took off early in 2020. His co-workers were worried he was at higher risk because of his age. Yet the stress of sitting at home watching the news was worse, so he went back to work. 

“Truthfully, the pandemic has had me very worried, very panicked, but I haven’t gotten sick with coronavirus. I’ve had co-workers test positive. I've never had symptoms though.” 

Now that he’s had the vaccine, he’s not panicked anymore. 

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Allegheny County — like in most communities across the country — has been fraught with obstacles that make getting the vaccine harder for those at most risk of serious illness and death from the virus. County leadership has been pointing residents towards its Wednesday press conferences and updates on the county website to learn about vaccination. But the information leaves residents with important questions unanswered, and residents who aren’t tech savvy quickly give up when they hit a “red screen” or error message when signing up online for appointments that show up with no predictable pattern.

Cesar Augusto Amaya Garzon, 73, receiving a vaccine shot. (Photo courtesy of Casa San José)

Cesar Augusto Amaya Garzon, 73, receiving a vaccine shot. (Photo courtesy of Casa San José)

During a Feb. 10 briefing, Dr. Deborah Bogen, director of the county health department, said  the county continues to refine and revisit their processes to improve access. The county recently added a  2-1-1 phone scheduling option, which has helped a limited number of residents get appointments by phone.

“We have, again, had some community outreach work, and we’re working in the senior buildings as part of that effort,” Bogen said, referring to a pilot program to vaccinate residents of subsidized senior housing. “We will continue to work with community partners to really try to address access issues that have been raised.”

Bogen expressed a commitment to learn and modify protocols as the rollout continues, and the state has recently mandated that vaccine sites include the possibility for phone signups. Despite these efforts, vulnerable residents face ongoing challenges in finding a slot to receive the vaccine, and community organizations and informal online groups are stepping in to help close those gaps. 

Barriers for the vulnerable

Mary Herbert, clinical director of the Birmingham Free Clinic in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood, says the way the vaccine is being rolled out locally poses specific challenges for the communities hardest hit by COVID-19 and the economic fallout of the pandemic, many of whom are represented as patients at the clinic. From lack of access to computers and the internet, to not having time or a job where one can sit and refresh a screen all day, to not having transportation to appointments, the barriers to vaccination can be almost insurmountable.

“All the things that made our patients more vulnerable and have shown the disparity with COVID infections are the same things that are driving the disparity in getting the vaccine,” Herbert told PublicSource.

When residents lack resources, community groups are mobilizing to coordinate appointments.

Lopez described his experience of getting a call, then being driven to his appointment, as easy. But Laura Perkins, emergency response organizer for Casa San José, told PublicSource that a lot went into that behind the scenes. Since Jan. 23, close to 30 volunteers have been working to get members of Pittsburgh’s Latin American community vaccinated.

“We didn’t have any special contacts or any vaccines,” she said, “but we had some volunteers who knew how to refresh the website over and over again, just like a lot of people have been doing.” Other volunteers called community members they had worked with in the past who are eligible for the vaccine.

“Our schedulers...kept refreshing until they got [Lopez] an appointment, and then we had another volunteer coordinator make sure he got a ride to the appointment, and another person was on call to deal with language access issues. So we told him that if he had any issues with that, to call this phone number and put them on speaker, and they would try to communicate with the nurse if the person doesn’t speak English. In Manuel’s case, he just speaks Spanish.” 

Casa San José has succeeded in connecting with about 100 eligible community members, Perkins said, getting 23 of them the first dose of vaccine so far and an additional 14 scheduled. She estimates this has taken more than 100 volunteer hours. During a Casa San José Facebook Live event on Feb. 2, the majority of the questions from the community revolved around whether they could get the vaccine at all, as opposed to when they would be eligible. One immigrant community member with a vaccine appointment thought the shot was only for U.S. citizens.

While Perkins acknowledges that the logistics of the vaccine rollout are difficult, she said the way it is happening is, “both a product of and perpetuating white privilege.”

‘It’s up to you’

The disability community has also been largely left out of the vaccine conversation, according to East Liberty resident Elaine Houston, a disability advocate with a condition that places her in the 1A vaccination priority group

“I've been active in disability aid since the pandemic started,” Houston said. “Once you realize the rest of the world is not helping, it's up to you and you alone to survive.”

She managed to get herself a vaccine appointment several weeks ago at the Munhall Rite Aid, logging on to the system at the moment, by sheer luck, when new slots were added. On the day of the appointment she witnessed an elderly woman in hysterics at being told she could not register in person. As Houston saw how emotional the woman became, she said she wanted to give up her spot to her, but was already processed through the system.

Elaine Houston with her service dog outside of her home in East Liberty. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Elaine Houston with her service dog outside of her home in East Liberty. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Over the coming days, she saw other members of the disability community in Pittsburgh struggle. In the Facebook group Disabled Pittsburgh Mutual Aid, she witnessed one friend become overwrought after calling the 2-1-1 repeatedly without success. “He is a high-risk individual over 65, and I was able to get him an appointment two days later.” She next registered someone who uses an assistive communication device instead of speaking, noting that the various pharmacy websites are highly inaccessible for anyone using adaptive technology. She began to use her free time to sign up other group members. She notes that there is nothing magical to getting a spot, it just takes a lot of time and energy — something that inherently favors people with privilege.

One of the people Houston got an appointment for is Miriam Kenton. She’s never met Miriam, but they will meet when she drives her to her appointment in Kittanning on March 9. “I realized in the group I have a unique position compared to some — I have a vehicle,” she said. “I can't do other things, but I have a  wheelchair accessible van I drive with a joystick.” 

Since Houston can transport people who use power chairs and other types of wheelchairs, she can provide a service that someone with a sedan can’t. It’s been a really heartening experience for her, as well. “Another person in the disability community, that I don’t even know...sent me $50 for gas and said, 'Here’s for those who can’t pay you.’”

When Houston told Kenton over the phone she had gotten her an appointment, she was stunned. Kenton has left her home only three times in the past year. “To think that, by the end of next month, I'll be fully vaccinated... it's unreal,” she said. “I know it's not a total fix, and I still need to be careful, but...there's light at the end, you know? For that matter, there's an end for there to be light at!”

‘Privileged white folks’

In spite of a few individuals clearing the many obstacles to vaccination, Daeja Baker, co-founder of the local group Pittsburgh Feminists for Intersectionality, is discouraged with the county’s rollout.

Both their lack of accessibility and failure to prioritize marginalized groups hit hardest by the pandemic stand out to her. She told PublicSource in an email, “They're just putting out a pool of days and times and not taking responsibility for the obvious disadvantages some people are at.” Baker has been frustrated by how many white women she sees rushing to sign up other white women, while members of marginalized communities on the front lines in service roles are most at risk of exposure. White women so far make up the bulk of people who have received the vaccine, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Members of racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately represented in essential roles, according to the CDC.  

Daeja Baker outside of her home in Polish Hill. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Daeja Baker outside of her home in Polish Hill. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Baker strives to educate her group about their duty to serve the most underserved residents. 

Those with more time, tech skills, and resources, can use that time to help others who don’t. Group members need to network together to make appointments or disseminate information about the vaccine to Black, Brown, disabled and elderly populations. 

“It is not the privileged white folks who flock these areas that need the vaccine,” Baker said. “It is those who have less access to healthcare that need this vaccine, and they don't deserve to be left out of the pool because they are working two and three jobs or caring for children, leaving them unable to search for vaccines on a more regular basis.”

Grassroots help

Many vaccine scheduling efforts are completely grassroots and not connected to any organization at all. 

Liz Huber is part of one such effort undertaken by members of a local mom’s Facebook group. Huber, of McCandless, first experienced the utter confusion with the scheduling process when trying to help her elderly parents. When she finally succeeded, she started crying. “That feeling of being completely in the dark, and then finally having that appointment for that person is just the biggest relief I've ever felt.” 

That spurred her and others to employ a two-pronged strategy. Branching off from a local Facebook group for moms, several different efforts arose. Huber created a Facebook Group with several other women, Getting Pittsburgh Vaccinated, to disseminate information about where appointments are available. Nia Baton-Soffietti founded the group  “Vaccine Moms,” and created a form for those who need an appointment so that they could search on their behalf. 

Huber has spent time volunteering with both efforts. “We want to really spend our time on those who can’t spend the time or don’t have the technology skills — or they don’t have the technology period. Because you cannot call, you cannot wait in line, you have to book things online.” 

Vaccine Moms emphasizes equitable access and attempts to educate residents. Baton-Soffieti told PublicSource in an email that while the Vaccine Moms form is shared and used within the Getting Pittsburgh Vaccinated group, it is a separate project prioritizing marginalized communities. “I live in the city of Pittsburgh and went to the public schools. My heart and focus is in communities and people who have been hit hardest by the pandemic,” including Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Allegheny County did begin vaccine scheduling via 2-1-1, for a limited 750 slots on Feb. 4. They received an estimate of 15,000 phone calls per second, and all spots were filled quickly. The county again opened up limited appointments via 2-1-1 on Tuesday, which quickly filled. As of Feb. 19, the state now requires a phone sign-up option for vaccine providers.

In the end, though, direction from official entities has been vague on how to actually enforce equitable access. Huber knows the situation is inequitable, but feels she can only do so much. “It’s a constant conversation,” she said. “But If someone qualifies under 1A, they can book it if they want to.”

For those seeking more information about these groups or those interested in helping with the effort to sign up marginalized communities, contact Casa San Jose at info@casasanjose.org, Pittsburgh Feminists for Intersectionality at Intersectionalfempgh@gmail.com, and Vaccine Moms at Vaccinemoms@gmail.com

Correction (2/18/2021): This story previously mischaracterized the relationship between Getting Pittsburgh Vaccinated and Vaccine Moms. New information has been added to the story to clarify.

Meg St-Esprit is a freelance journalist based in Bellevue. She can be reached at megstesprit@gmail.com or on Twitter @MegStEsprit.

Juliet B. Martinez is a freelance journalist on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Reach her at julietbmartinez@gmail.com or on Instagram @JulietBMartinez

This story was fact-checked by Megan Gent.

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