The race is on to vaccinate Pittsburgh’s Black community

RAYMOND HALL, a Pittsburgh-area resident, received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at an event at Heinz Field, March 9.  (Photo by J.L. Martello)

by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer

Oakland resident Raymond Hall wasted no time.

As soon as he was able to get a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, he signed up. On March 9, there was no place he would have rather been than at Heinz Field — not to see his beloved Steelers, but to get the first dose of the coveted COVID-19 vaccine.

Hall was part of thousands who received their first vaccine doses at Heinz Field over a multi-day event, sponsored by Giant Eagle. The New Pittsburgh Courier has been reporting on the low proportion of African Americans in Allegheny County who have received all or part of the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to Whites in the county. As of March 26, only 9,377 African Americans in Allegheny County had been fully vaccinated, according to state Department of Health data. The number of Whites fully vaccinated was 134,728.

Vaccine getting to Black communities, but more needs to be done

CRYSTAL BALDWIN, a Pittsburgh-area resident, received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at an event at Heinz Field, March 9. The race is on to vaccinate as many people as possible, and African Americans want to be sure they’re included in the ability to receive the vaccine. (Photos by J.L. Martello)

The Courier interviewed some African Americans that had received their first doses during the Heinz Field event in early March.

“It’s very important (for African Americans to get the vaccine) because we have enough medical issues as it is, we don’t need COVID on top of it,” Hall, who is a security guard, told the Courier’s J.L. Martello. “Make your appointment, be patient and when your appointment comes up, show up.”

Crystal Baldwin, of Beaver Falls, told the Courier that she and her husband were initially hesitant about getting the vaccine. But she wasn’t alone. Anita Alston, of Mt. Oliver, told the Courier that she was somewhat hesitant about receiving the vaccine, too. Her daughter-in-law, Tiera Alston, of the East End, brought her to Heinz Field to get the vaccine.

“I’m glad it’s done,” Anita Alston told the Courier’s Martello. “Didn’t really want to do it, but I’m glad it’s done.” Pressed on why she didn’t want to get the vaccine, Anita Alston replied: “I just wasn’t ready. But I’m glad it’s done.”
Baldwin said that the more she and her husband heard about the vaccine, they finally decided to take the shots. Plus, they hadn’t seen their grandchildren, and wanted to be able to be around them.

“We are dying at a higher rate than any other group,” Baldwin said about African Americans shedding any worries and making sure they get the vaccine. “If we could show Black folks that the vaccine is safe, we can get it, we can move forward, then why not?”

Elaine Harris-Fulton, of Forest Hills, also received the first dose of the vaccine on March 9 at Heinz Field. She acknowledged how some African Americans may be hesitant to get the vaccine. “I know in the past, there have been things that we haven’t trusted, but we might need to trust them on this one because so many people are dying,” she said.

To those who had no hesitation about the vaccine (which is the vast majority), it was difficult for some to even get an appointment. Over the past 60 days, trying to sign up for the vaccine via the websites of Giant Eagle, the Allegheny Health Department, UPMC, or Allegheny Health Network have been like trying to hit the Pennsylvania Lottery.

Harris-Fulton said she had tried for weeks to get an appointment, but her daughter eventually found a spot on Giant Eagle’s website.

The Allegheny County Health Department announced recently that they were opening up additional centers for residents to receive the vaccine, including Central Baptist Church (2200 Wylie Ave., Hill District) and Petersen Events Center, in Oakland. The vaccine is available at those locations, in addition to the county locations in Castle Shannon and Ross Twp., by appointment only, via the Health Department’s website.

Placing a county “point of dispensary” vaccine location at Central Baptist Church is a sign that the county wants to make it as easy as possible for African Americans to get the vaccine. But the Courier has also learned of partnerships between the county, Allegheny Health Network and UPMC to get even more African Americans vaccinated.

A number of community organizations partnered with the county to provide 1,000 vaccinations for those 65 years of age and older at the YMCA location on Bennett St., in Homewood, in February. After a small delay, the residents were able to return to receive their second dose, making them fully vaccinated.

And Alice Williams, vice chair of the community organization Bethany Community Ministries (Homewood), told the Courier that her group collaborated with the county on Feb. 12 to provide vaccines to 33 residents at the Eva P. Mitchell senior apartments on Lincoln Ave., and to 75 residents at the Legacy Apartments on Centre Ave., Hill District. The residents received the Moderna COVID vaccine, vaccinated by those from the Duquesne University pharmacy division.

Bethany Community Ministries then partnered with Allegheny Health Network to vaccinate residents at senior residences Douglas Plaza, Ebenezer Towers, K. Leroy Irvis Towers and Silver Lake Commons, among others.

And on March 13, Williams was overjoyed when she witnessed 600 primarily African American residents receiving their first vaccine doses during an event at Bethany Center, 7745 Tioga St., Homewood. Bethany Community Ministries partnered with UPMC on the venture.

“Our greatest desire is to save lives, and to see our community response, and to do it in such a positive way,” proved beneficial, Williams told the Courier.
Bethany Community Ministries was informed on March 4 that UPMC would have 600 doses available. The organization was able to gather 600 people from their community list, and with assistance from Soul Pitt magazine president Donna Baxter Porcher, to make it all happen.

Williams said it’s important that the vaccine is brought to African American communities in Allegheny County, because not only do the vast majority of people want the vaccine, but making the vaccines easily accessible to the Black community shows true equity. She said oftentimes, there is a misnomer that just because thousands of people were vaccinated at a massive location, such as Heinz Field or PNC Park, that equals “equity.”

But to African Americans, “equity” means “fairness,” and Williams said putting the vaccine in Black communities is the real meaning of equity.

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