Story by Rjaa Ahmed
Anlin Wang, 25, waited for more than an hour at the Federal Emergency Management Agency vaccination clinic at the Philadelphia Convention Center in mid-March. Wang, who lives near 45th and Locust streets in the 19104 ZIP code, realized he lived in one of the city’s most underserved and affected ZIP codes, and was therefore eligible for a walk-up appointment at the Convention Center.
He was turned away when he got to the front of the line, though.
“After an hour getting to the front, a woman with a clipboard asked what qualified my friend and I to seek a vaccine,” Wang said.
Wang said he was eligible under Phase 1B as an essential worker who interacts with the public, including immunocompromised and other vulnerable populations as part of his role as an employee in City Hall. He was accompanied by a friend who self-identifies as a dark-skinned and obese South Asian American.
“The woman then asked what I do for work and I told her I work in City Hall,” Wang said. “She also asked my friend what he did for work and he noted he was currently unemployed.“
Even though Wang and his friend assumed they qualified for the vaccine under the eligibility criteria released by the City, they were both denied after being asked a series of questions, Wang said.
“She then told us that we’re not eligible for the vaccine because they were trying to ‘focus on those that are REALLY sick’,” he said.
The confusion around eligibility was stressful, Wang said.
When Wang showed up at the Convention Center, 19104 was identified as one of the 22 ZIP codes classified as underrepresented and underserved in the COVID-19 vaccination program by Pennsylvania’s Department of Health. Eligible residents of these ZIP codes were allowed walk-up, no appointment access to vaccination sites to bridge the disparity in vaccination coverage, according to a press release from the City.
Though Wang was eventually able to get his dosages of the Pfizer vaccine, the entire process was grueling and hard to navigate, he said.
City residents belonging to minority and underserved communities continue to face difficulties accessing the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Emily Tran, health manager at the grassroots community organization VietLead. VietLead has teamed up with Juntos, another immigrant-focused community organization, to set up vaccination clinics all across Philadelphia and South Jersey to help residents access the vaccine.
“The biggest barriers are language access, technology, time and place,” Tran said. “While it has taken a long time, it seems like most sites that administer the vaccine have great language access on site, but there are language/technological barriers that prevent people from getting to clinics in the first place.”
In order to book an appointment through the City’s online portal, residents need to have access to the internet and be proficient in English, which discriminates against older, migrant, and nonnative English-speaking residents, Tran said. This tech-heavy approach also alienates low-income individuals who do not have stable access to the internet, she added.
Moreover, online appointments for FEMA clinics continue to get filled up quickly.
“People working demanding jobs usually do not have the time to keep refreshing the portal as appointments disappear,” Tran said.
The system only caters to a select group of people who have the time and resources to navigate this process and take off from work to access the vaccine, she added.
Wang said he had to take off from work when he attempted to access the vaccine. Most people Tran’s team vaccinated do not have that privilege.
“At our last clinic, we coordinated vaccines for around 220 people, all of whom speak a primary language that is not English,” Tran said. “We primarily vaccinated elders, factory workers, grocery store workers, and restaurant workers.”
Tran said organizing the clinic at the organization’s Oregon Avenue location allowed VietLead to reach communities in need exactly where they were present, eliminating the need for long commutes that can be a barrier for working-class individuals.
The area around the office in Whitman Plaza houses several Asian businesses and has a high population of Asian immigrants, Tran added.
An extensive history of medical bias, scientific racism, and inequity in health care access stoked distrust in nonWhite communities as well, Tran said. This has disillusioned a vast number of older immigrants within the Vietnamese community who have unfounded fears about the vaccine’s side-effects, she said.
VietLead’s network of organizers and volunteers thus have the added challenge of busting these myths in order to ensure a more equitable distribution of vaccine doses across the city.
Watching others in the community receive their shots encourages others to trust the vaccine process more, Tran said.
In addition, Tran and other volunteers run phone banks in both Vietnamese and English to answer questions about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. Receiving this information in their own language is reassuring for immigrants who do not trust the American health care system, Tran said.
Access was also a key concern for the joint canvassing campaign, #VaccinateWSWPhilly, launched by Rep. Rick Krajewski and Reclaim Philadelphia, where a crop of volunteers were assigned to ensure individuals over the age of 65 were registered for the vaccine in the Council District 3, according to Haley Ratcliff, a volunteer.
Reaching people where they are helps individuals overcome obstacles they may face in terms of access, Ratcliff said.
“We targeted people above the age of 65 because they were in the Phase 1A and 1B categories defined by the City,” Ratcliff said. “The rollout process was definitely inequitable with people in predominantly Black and brown areas being hit the hardest.”
According to Tran, VietLead will continue to organize their clinics through May, as well as collaborate with other community organizers to ensure community needs are met.
A reaffirming highlight of this vaccine accessibility campaign is the opportunity to be there for immigrant communities and foster relationships with other grassroots organizations, Tran said. The work has also shown her how much the local community relies on VietLead.
“I really loved doing the clinic at Oregon Market and in our office because it’s really well known and accessible to our community, has lots of space for parking, and allowed us to build with our business neighbors,” Tran said.
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