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RI HEALTH

Volunteers go door-to-door to reach residents in communities vulnerable to COVID-19

Some residents of Providence’s hardest-hit ZIP codes still need convincing, while others simply need better information and access.

Mayor Jorge O. Elorza joins a canvassing effort to sign residents up for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment in the city's hardest-hit community.
Mayor Jorge O. Elorza joins a canvassing effort to sign residents up for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment in the city's hardest-hit community.City of Providence

PROVIDENCE — Given the chance to register for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment from his perch behind the front counter of his father’s fast-food joint, Hadaitullah Amini, 23, didn’t hesitate.

“I thought I’d be the last person in Rhode Island to be able to get it,” he said.

Amini, who helps run Crown Fried Chicken on Broad Street in one of Providence’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, has been patiently waiting to sign up for a vaccine. He deals with the public daily in an area where more than 18 percent of nearby residents have tested positive for COVID-19 at some point in the last year. Many of his customers do not wear face coverings — some by choice, others because they don’t have access to any.

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While state-wide eligibility largely includes those age 50 and older, and those age 16 and older with an underlying medical condition; Rhode Island has activated their high-density communities and hardest-hit ZIP codes, all adults are eligible. That includes 02907, where Amini goes to work every day.

Amini was not aware that he was eligible for the vaccine. But on Tuesday night, city and American Red Cross volunteers visited the restaurant, let him know he was eligible, and offered to sign him up on the spot.

“I was just waiting my turn before. If I knew that I was able to sign up, I would have already done so. But there’s so much information and it’s hard to stay in the know,” Amini told a Globe reporter. “I don’t have time to keep checking all these websites.”

He added, “Now that I’m signed up, that’s great. But it’s only because they came to me. Shouldn’t this be easier?”

There has been 1,452 COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 people in the past year in ZIP code 02907 -- the second highest rate in the state. It’s residents and people who work there are largely people of color: Out of an estimated population of 27,445 people, nearly 59 percent are Latino and more than 18 percent are Black.

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Multi-generational homes abound, and more than 85 percent of the community’s children are eligible for free or reduced lunch. The area is dense, with nearly 12,500 people per square mile, the median household income is $27,573 per year, and most people living and working in the community don’t have the luxury to work from home or take time out of their day to navigate glitchy websites and questionnaires. Some don’t have access to WiFi, a cell phone, or reliable transportation.

Many of the “traditional” forms of outreach, such as social media posts and updates on government-run websites, miss these populations — potentially leaving them behind in the vaccine rollout.

“We all want to get to the other side. That means we all have to be part of the solution,” Mayor Jorge O. Elorza told the Globe. “And if people in our community are not getting the vaccine even though they want them, then we have to figure out how we’re going to reach them.”

On Tuesday night, nearly 20 volunteers from the American Red Cross and the city of Providence, including Elorza, dispersed throughout the neighborhoods in 02907. They went door-to-door to homes and local businesses, handing out KN95 masks and hand sanitizer, on a mission to sign people up for a COVID-19 vaccine clinic for this Saturday.

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They wore vests with the American Red Cross logo, carried iPads to book appointments on-site, wore pins that indicated which languages they spoke other than English, and handed out flyers in various languages with information about getting the vaccine in Rhode Island.

After about two hours of canvassing, the nearly 20 volunteers signed up approximately 100 residents for COVID-19 vaccine appointments. But they encountered many who still do not believe that the vaccine is safe and effective.

“I’m waiting to see how others react [to the vaccine] before I get it,” one woman told Tracey Giron, Elorza’s deputy chief of staff who has spearheaded much of the city’s vaccination efforts in its high-density communities, from her front porch.

Volunteer Bernita Davis said that many people didn’t even answer the door for her, while others told her that they weren’t planning on ever getting the vaccine. She said the issue stems from years of distrust for anyone connected to government or law enforcement.

She said one woman told her she thought the crew of volunteers at her front door were undercover police officers. Others expressed concerns about all of the personal questions they were asked on the sign-up forms.

“As a person of color, I can honestly say that there’s not enough people out there on the streets that look like them, telling them it’s important to get vaccinated, and then show them how to do it,” said Davis, who decided to canvas for the first time Tuesday because of the need she saw to assure people that the vaccine was safe. “The neighborhoods that need the vaccine the most are wondering, ‘Are you really looking out for me, and my best interest?’”

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Though Providence is a sanctuary city, “undocumented immigrants are going to be skeptical of you asking that information. Just because you’re going door-to-door, doesn’t mean everyone is going to open theirs. They don’t know who you are, and just because you’re wearing an American Red Cross vest doesn’t mean they trust you,” said Davis. “They’re wondering, who are you bringing my information to? Am I safe?”

Davis said that if the state wants to reach herd immunity by vaccinating about 70 percent of the population, then they should be bringing shots straight to people’s homes and allow some to skip out on the overwhelming questionnaires.

As of Monday, only 30 percent of Providence’s population has been at least partially vaccinated.

Elorza said that there’s a “total mismatch” of the communities that were hardest hit by COVID-19 and the communities that are receiving the vaccine now. He said efforts, such as canvassing door-to-door, is an attempt to start matching them up.

“We’re trying to make sure that vaccine is accessible and available to people in the hardest-hit communities, and that means going the extra effort,” Elorza said. “We’ve got to be proactive to make sure the vaccines are being delivered with equity.”



Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.