Detroit is lagging the state when it comes to getting residents vaccinated against COVID-19, and the city is now stepping up efforts to correct that.
As of last week, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, more than 39% of people in Michigan have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. In Detroit, that number is less than 23%.
Detroit’s chief health officer Denise Fair said the city now has plenty of vaccine supply, and it’s expanded access well beyond the TCF Center’s mass vaccination site. “I think now we need to focus our efforts towards vaccine hesitancy, which is absolutely real in the city of Detroit,” said Fair, citing systemic racism in the medical field as one reason why Detroiters (80% of whom are Black) might be hesitant.
But Dr. Erica Marsh, an associate professor and researcher at the University of Michigan Medical School, said the city shouldn’t overlook vaccine access as a continuing problem in Detroit. Marsh is part of a National Institutes of Health-funded team that’s working with community groups in four Michigan counties, including Wayne County, to investigate and address health disparities and disinformation related to COVID-19.
“What we’ve seen is an evolution in peoples’ and community members’ thinking around the virus,” Marsh said. “Last fall and in the winter, there was a lot of hesitancy, when the vaccine was just a theoretical, when it was an idea and it had not yet been approved. And there were a lot of concerns about safety and about the rate at which the vaccine was developed.”
But now, “We’re seeing a lot less hesitancy around taking the vaccine than we've seen in the past. And the challenge now is really around access. People are more willing to take the vaccine than the data last fall reflected, but they're having problems registering for the vaccine [and] identifying sites.”
Marsh said lingering barriers include transportation, and scheduling vaccine appointments around job schedules. She notes that Detroit has done a good job running mass vaccination sites like the TCF Center, but said communities need to take a “multi-pronged” approach to vaccination, and “balance efficiency with effectiveness.”
“If there are some people who don't feel comfortable going to a large stadium or have trouble, or have trouble with transportation or hours, we have to figure out a way to meet that need as well,” Marsh said.
“I think it's really speaks to the critical role of trusted community partners and or community organizations that community members find trustworthy, because those are the organizations that have the gravitas and again, the relation with community members to say we are providing this service for you, [and] we're providing it in your neighborhood.”
Fair said Detroit is extending its vaccine reach deeper into city neighborhoods. The city has been sponsoring “Community Saturdays” at multiple churches, and it’s ramping up a new mass vaccination site at the Northwest Activities Center, which is administering the Johnson & Johnson shot. And next week, the city will host “Neighborhood Vaccine Week,” with vaccine clinics at eight sites throughout the city (seven schools and the Islamic Center of Detroit).
Detroiters can also get vaccinated at Ford Field, which is open to all residents of southeast Michigan, and at various pharmacies and health or community centers throughout the city. However, state data shows that for whatever reason, those sites have given relatively few shots to Detroiters compared to the city health department.
“What we are doing is creating multiple access points for Detroiters so they can just pick up the phone and dial one number (313-230-0505)” to get an appointment at one of multiple city-run sites, Fair said.
The city is also planning to ramp up the communication end of things. Starting next week, corresponding with the neighborhood vaccine clinics, the city will knock on doors in zip codes surrounding those clinics to make sure people are getting the message about vaccines, and how and where to get them. Eventually, the idea is to expand that door-knocking effort city-wide.
Fair said the city is also launching a multimedia campaign encouraging Detroiters to get vaccinated, featuring fellow residents telling their vaccination stories. And they’re relying on community influencers, particularly clergy, to spread the word.
Fair said the city is “definitely on the right path,” but still has “a long way to go.” She said with COVID-19 cases surging in Detroit and across Michigan, the need to get people vaccinated is urgent.
“I hope people will listen,” she said. “I hope people will not wait until it's too late.”