All original photography by Sarah Rice unless otherwise credited.
DETROIT ― Phil Talbert is standing in a strip mall parking lot, trying to stay warm on a raw April morning while he promotes COVID-19 shots to the unvaccinated. And he is not having much luck.
Talbert, 61, is leading a group of vaccine “street teams” that Michigan officials have dispatched to one of America’s poorest, Blackest cities. He is part of a project management and community outreach firm that has worked with the state before ― and in that respect, at least, the vaccination campaign is just another contract job.
But Talbert is Black and lives about a mile and a half away from this neighborhood, which sits between downtown and the city’s west side. He has watched loved ones battle the disease, including two friends and three family members who lost their fights. “We are all from Detroit,” he says. “This is our community.”
Clipboard in hand, hooded sweatshirt pulled up around his neck, Talbert does his best to project a friendly presence from behind his mask. But just starting conversations is a challenge.
A woman in a red sweatshirt and black leggings shoos him away, saying, “Don’t want it, don’t know what’s in it.” A uniformed security guard from nearby Henry Ford Hospital pulls up in his squad car, and practically closes the car door in Talbert’s face. Next is another hospital employee, a woman who shuts down the conversation more politely, saying she wants to wait to learn more.
“I tried talking to her,” Talbert says, with a shrug. “She’s at the hospital, she sees it. But she didn’t trust [the vaccine].”
Finally Talbert manages to engage Claude Searles, a former autoworker dressed in fatigues and on his way to the convenience store. He says he hasn’t gotten the vaccine, but he listens as Talbert runs through the street team’s talking points, with an emphasis on protecting loved ones. Eventually, Searles takes a card with information about local vaccine sites, including a nearby federal clinic that doesn’t require appointments.
Searles tells me afterward he is thinking about going ― not for himself, but for his mother, because he doesn’t want to get sick and infect her. A few minutes later he is back, this time with a friend who, to Talbert’s delight, is also interested in hearing more.
By this point, Talbert has been at it for about 30 minutes. It’s an awful lot of time and effort for the sake of two “maybes.” But when it comes to reducing the Black-white gap in COVID-19 shots, in Detroit and in the rest of America, there may be no alternative to this kind of persistence and patience.
America Has A Racial Vaccine Gap. So Does Detroit.
But some population groups here have fallen conspicuously behind, and one of them is Black Americans, whose vaccination rate is about two-thirds that of white Americans, according to estimates from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. A similar differential exists in Detroit, where the citywide vaccination rate is the lowest for any jurisdiction that the state tracks on its website.
What makes the gap especially disturbing is that it seems unlikely to go away soon. More than half of all American adults are now fully vaccinated, the White House announced this week. But in Detroit, Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett Jr. told me in an interview, “it would be fantastic if we could get to the middle or high 40s” by September.
Charles Williams, a minister and leader of the city’s civil rights community, said he thinks it could be a year or more before citywide rates catch up to the rest of the country ― which, if true, would add to the long list of indicators of health and well-being on which Detroit lags the rest of the state.
Of course, it would also mean more people getting the disease, not to mention more opportunities for new variants to emerge.
It’s tempting to blame all of this on political indifference. And maybe that’s the case in some parts of the country. But racial disparities have been a highly visible focus for local and state officials here since the start of the pandemic, while reducing vaccine disparities specifically has been a priority for the federal government since Jan. 20, when Joe Biden became president.
How much their efforts have helped, and what else can or should be done, is difficult to say definitively. But one point of consensus among officials, front-line workers and community leaders is that the challenge is enormous.
They say the problem is both “access” and “hesitancy” ― not one or the other, as is sometimes supposed ― and that it’s a result of forces that have been at work for generations. As Mallett put it, “you are not going to tear down the aftereffects of systematic racism in three months.”
The Officials In Charge Know All About The Racial Gap
From its first moments in the U.S., COVID-19 has held up a mirror to the country’s racial and economic disparities. Nowhere has that been more true than in Detroit, where the population is almost 80% Black and where the income of roughly 1 in 3 residents is at or below the federal poverty line.
Detroit was one of the first big cities where the pandemic spread, and for a few weeks last year, the city’s health care system was on the verge of collapse because the effects on its vulnerable population were so devastating.
Poor housing conditions, and a need for essential workers to keep showing up at their jobs even during the pandemic’s peak, made people especially prone to getting and spreading the virus. Lack of insurance or connection to health care providers contributed to high rates of untreated heart and lung conditions. Forty-two percent of Black people in the Detroit area lost a family member to COVID-19 last year, according to estimates in a recent Brookings Institution study, compared to 9% of white people.
Even before vaccinations were approved, there was growing concern that similar disparities would plague the rollout. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued an advisory on reaching traditionally marginalized population groups that was supposed to guide the federal strategy for distribution. But there is little evidence that the Trump administration followed those instructions, largely because the Trump administration didn’t pay much attention to vaccine distribution in general.
The Biden administration took a more aggressive approach from the outset, creating a “health equity task force” within its coronavirus response team and appointing Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale epidemiologist and nationally recognized researcher in health disparities, as its leader.
The task force meets daily, administration officials say, and can focus on addressing specific, local problems. Early in the rollout, for example, it helped orchestrate delivery and administration of vaccines in a heavily Black section of Birmingham, Alabama, that hadn’t gotten any supply. Other times, the task force advises the rest of the COVID response group on broader policy decisions, like how to distribute vaccines.
In both cases, it works closely with state and local authorities ― which, in Michigan and in Detroit, means working with officials who have a similarly relevant combination of experience and expertise.
Michigan’s chief medical officer, for example, is Joneigh Khaldun, an emergency room doctor and former public health director for the city of Detroit who still practices at Henry Ford. Mallett, the deputy mayor overseeing the city’s pandemic response, is a former executive at Detroit Medical Center, a major safety-net hospital. (Prior to that, he was the first Black chief justice on the state Supreme Court.)
The “all-of-government” collaboration has led to a variety of initiatives, like tax credits for small businesses that give vaccine recipients paid leave and $50 debit cards for people who drive neighbors to appointments.
“I think they have left no stone unturned in their efforts to vaccinate as many Detroiters as possible,” said Phillip Levy, a professor and emergency medicine physician at Wayne State University who has worked closely with Detroit’s government on programs to reach the city’s underserved populations. “They are constantly brainstorming, trying anything and everything.”
But, Levy added, “some of the things put in place have not worked as well as people hoped ... It’s been a heavy lift.”
A case in point is the record of mass vaccination centers.
Mass Vaccination Didn’t Reach The Most Vulnerable
Elected leaders were full of optimism on March 18, at a launch event for a new, federally run mass vaccination site at Ford Field, home of the Lions football team. Among the speakers was Garlin Gilchrist, Michigan’s Democratic lieutenant governor, who is from the city.
“As a Detroiter, I felt this personally, having said goodbye to 27 people due to this virus,” said Gilchrist, who is Black. “The virus hit our city hard... and today, right here at Ford Field, southeast Michigan becomes a symbol of hope.”
One reason for the hope was that government agencies have been using data to target their vaccine efforts. A key tool is something called the Social Vulnerability Index ― a number, on a scale from zero to one, that takes into account certain factors in a given population, like income, English-language capability, racial composition and access to public transportation. (The federal government first developed SVI after Hurricane Katrina, as a way to improve the targeting of natural disaster responses.)
The Biden administration used SVI to help guide the placement of mass vaccination clinics. That was one reason, in consultation with state and local authorities, they picked Ford Field, which is centrally located and near several high-SVI neighborhoods. But the facility, which ended operations last week, drew in dramatically more people from the suburbs than the city.
More than 4 in 10 doses at Ford Field went to residents of upscale, predominantly white Oakland County, according to official statistics. Less than 1 in 10 went to residents of Detroit.
Rev. Williams, whose King Solomon Church sits on the city’s west side, told me he wasn’t surprised. Detroit is a sprawling metropolis with poor public transportation, and Ford Field’s downtown location puts it near some high-poverty neighborhoods but far away from many more ― psychologically as well as geographically.
“There’s a huge number of people who don’t go to Ford Field for Lions games, who don’t go downtown because of parking, and who just don’t leave the neighborhood,” Williams said. “People just don’t feel comfortable going to a place they never go.”
Focus Has Shifted To The Neighborhoods
Federal, state and local officials say they never believed Ford Field alone would take care of the city’s more vulnerable residents.
“We knew that mass vaccination sites were important for speed and volume, and we’ve done that,” Khaldun said. “But we also have always known that you still have to do community, neighborhood-based work ― that you have to get vaccines into neighborhoods where people are able to and want to access them.”
One way the federal government has targeted neighborhoods is by developing a partnership with retail pharmacies, since they already have vaccine delivery capabilities and are all over the country. In Detroit, two dozen pharmacies ended up participating in that program.
“You are not going to tear down the aftereffects of systematic racism in three months.”
Yet another initiative enlisted Federally Qualified Health Centers -- a network of community clinics around the country that offer discounted or free care, based on one’s ability to pay. Those have been particularly successful at administering vaccines to underserved communities. But there are only so many of them, and in Detroit, they still don’t reach into many neighborhoods.
Probably the most localized efforts of all are those the city runs directly. Those include ongoing clinics at recreation centers and churches, some open during the week and some on Saturdays only, plus an ongoing series of pop-up clinics that open for a day at one site, then move to another, in an effort to cover more of the city’s population. Next month, the city plans to launch a new effort to reach homebound residents.
Williams thinks this is the right approach, but says it is still not enough. What Detroit really needs, he argues, is many more small clinics that can consistently cover all of the neighborhoods. The pop-up sites are “very unpredictable,” Williams said. “You have to be watching the morning news, reading the newspaper to actually know where and when there’s a site in your area.”
When I put that suggestion to Mallett, the deputy mayor, he said he thinks the clinics are already covering large parts of the city. And although he agreed it’s worth thinking about establishing even more of them, he warned that traffic to the existing clinics has already slowed way down ― so adding more clinics might not meaningfully boost the rate, at least on its own.
“We are doing about 2,000 shots a week,” Mallett said, “and we could easily be doing 2,000 a day.”
Many Don’t Trust The Shot ― Or The People Promoting It
Vaccination rates are low in some other parts of Michigan, too, including the politically conservative, predominantly white counties to the north where residents have been flouting mask orders and are far more likely to say COVID-19 is a hoax.
This is fundamentally different from the situation in Detroit, where residents are plenty scared of the virus. The problem is that many of them don’t trust the vaccine, for reasons deeply rooted in the experience of being Black in America.
High on the list is the legacy of the infamous Tuskegee experiments. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the course of syphilis in 400 Black men, without informing them they had the disease and without offering antibiotics even after they became a standard treatment.
“People might not know the details of Tuskegee,” Talbert, the street team worker, told me, “but they understand what happened, and they’ll say, ‘I don’t want anybody experimenting on me.’”
But it’s not just awareness of these historic travesties that breeds distrust in medical science, community leaders say. It’s also personal experience with the medical system.
“There’s a sincere concern about the care that many of us get when we go to the doctor’s office, end up in the hospital,” Williams said. “You talk to any Black family, we all have the same strategy ― somebody is going to have to be there around the clock, in the room, to stay on top of these nurses and to make sure the doctor comes by, because if we don’t practice that strategy, the system will let our loved one down.”
Layered on top is distrust of government more broadly, in ways the Black Lives Matter movement has made vivid in the past few years. That undermines the ability of public officials to overcome doubts, according to Reed Tuckson, a former public health commissioner for Washington, D.C., and co-founder of an independent national nonprofit called the Black Coalition Against COVID.
“You have people in the Black community who are literally screaming out loud that my life has to matter, that you have to respect my dignity ― that is well beyond a criminal justice issue,” Tuckson said. “It bleeds over to the trustworthiness that people have or feel about the drug industry, about government agencies who are administering information, and it bleeds over to the relationship that African-Americans have with the health care delivery system.”
The officials and leaders I interviewed all said they’d anticipated the skepticism. What they didn’t count on was the ability of charlatans and cranks to spread so much nonsense on social media.
“People say, ‘There’s a microchip in the shot,’” said Norman Clement, executive director of a community action group called the Detroit Change Initiative. “It doesn’t make sense, but that’s what they are getting from YouTube, Facebook, the misinformation sites. And it’s been going on for a year.”
The Message Matters, And So Does The Messenger
It all sounds bleak. But the officials, health care professionals and advocates I spoke to believe they are already gaining ground ― partly because of the same efforts that work on other population groups, and partly because of more targeted campaigns.
One reason to take those claims seriously is that surveys, including studies of Detroit residents by researchers at the University of Michigan, suggest Black Americans who were previously unsure about the vaccines are becoming more enthusiastic as time passes and they get more information.
“When I read so much of the reportage these days, it makes it seem like there’s something abnormal about Black folks ― that they just don’t get it, can’t get it,” Tuckson said. “And I think it’s important to realize that, while we still have significant work to do, we have also made significant progress.”
One theme I heard over and over was the importance of tone when trying to persuade people who are skittish about the shots. “I hate to even use the word ‘hesitancy,’ because I don’t want to shame people,” Khaldun said. “I think it’s OK for people to have questions about the vaccine, and to have a place where they know their questions will be answered.”
“There are no more home runs to hit. We need to be getting singles.”
Conveying basic information that many people may still not understand, like the idea that shots are always free, remains important. The messenger makes a big difference, too. Doctors are thought to be the most trusted sources of information and reassurance when it comes to vaccines, but that doesn’t always help in low-income communities where people don’t have regular health care providers.
One goal of Tuckson’s group, the Black Coalition Against COVID, is to reach people who may only see doctors at emergency rooms or urgent care centers. The coalition has also focused on social media to reach people who might not watch CNN or read the Detroit Free Press. One of its campaigns included producing videos of “Black Doctors Reading COVID Tweets” ― a twist on the feature, from Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show, of celebrities reading mean tweets about themselves.
“I was shocked when I got a whole bunch of emails from people saying, ‘Hey, I saw you blowing up on Instagram,’” Tuckson said.
But the most important appeals may be the ones that happen one-on-one, preferably in familiar settings and in the context of talking about other topics.
Williams described “the conversation that works” as: “I’m here to see if there’s anything that you need. Are you behind on your rent? Are you looking for gainful employment? Are you having a tough time with child care? Let’s see if we can plug you into those services ― and by the way, can I ask if you’ve taken the vaccine?”
Progress Is Slow, But It Can Have Long-Term Benefits
That’s the basic approach for a set of five “mobile clinics” ― specially outfitted Ford minibuses that Wayne State University and Wayne Health operate in coordination with the state, which paid for three of them. (Director Steven Soderbergh bought the other two, to show his gratitude for the city’s support while he filmed a movie here last year.)
On a recent Saturday, I got to see one of these clinics in the parking lot of the Celebration Church, on Detroit’s east side. It was the same day as a weekly food bank, and the plan was to offer vaccinations to people as they passed through. The Detroit Change Initiative co-sponsored the event and had promoted it.
As we waited for the food bank to open, the church’s pastor, Gregory Davis, described what he hears from parishioners who are reluctant to get the vaccine. Some repeat social media myths, he said, but others offer more sophisticated arguments ― like about the difference between “emergency authorization” from the Food and Drug Administration (which the shots have already) and full approval (which the shots don’t have yet).
Davis said he had to lobby his own daughter, who is 26, to get the vaccine, even though she’s a blogger who follows the news closely. “There’s just so much fear out there,” he said.
Before the food bank began, the clinic’s staff went over logistics and strategy with Davis and the local volunteers. It sounded a lot like the approach Phil Talbert and his street team took in April ― with a focus on empathy, a determination to answer all questions with data, and an emphasis on how getting the shot can help protect a person’s loved ones.
The strategy seemed to pay off with Joyce Smith, a 65-year-old retiree from the east side who has lost relatives to COVID. She had been thinking about the shots for a while, she told me, but was worried because she has a lung condition and thought that might be dangerous for her. The reassurance from the mobile clinic staff helped; plus, she was hoping to travel this summer with her sister, who wanted her to get the shot.
Still, in the 90 minutes I was there, only Smith and one other person got a shot. And that was apparently typical for the past few weeks. “We’ve gone from mass vaccination to mop-up,” said Levy, the Wayne State professor who developed and supervises the mobile effort. “There are no more home runs to hit. We need to be getting singles.”
But there are potential long-term benefits to this approach. The mobile clinics provide some other services, like blood pressure screenings, as well as an opportunity to make appointments for regular checkups. The hope is to get more people integrated into the health care system ― and, in so doing, to strike a blow against the inequality that made COVID-19 so deadly in cities like this.
“The work of public health is not easy,” Khaldun told me. “Everybody may not want to hear it, or be ready to get the vaccine, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth it.”