‘We’ve got to do better’: Detroit struggles to improve COVID-19 vaccination numbers

A COVID-19 memorial in Detroit's Rosedale Park community | Ken Coleman photo

More than six months after the city of Detroit began offering COVID-19 vaccinations, the percentage of Detroit residents aged 12 and up who have received at least one vaccination dose stands at a staggering 38.1%, significantly lower than the state rate of 62%.

Mayor Mike Duggan told the Advance on Friday that he is “disappointed” in that more Detroit residents are not vaccinated. It comes as city officials have carried out several strategies including neighborhood sites such as homes of worship and community centers; door-to-door information efforts; and now home vaccination visits.

Detroit residents can schedule a home vaccination by calling 313-230-0505. 

“We’ve got to do better,” said Denise Fair, the city’s chief public health officer. “So, we do have a long way to go.”

Detroit was the hardest hit in Michigan during the early months of the pandemic in the winter and spring of 2020. In fact, several ZIP codes in the city experienced significantly higher case levels than other parts of the Southeast Michigan region and other parts of the state.

What’s more: Blacks are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Detroit is 79% African American. 

VP Harris urges Detroiters to get COVID-19 vaccine as city’s rate lags

So state, federal and local officials have been focused on improving Detroit’s vaccination rate. On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Motor City in an effort to increase the city’s vaccination rate in an event attended by Duggan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and other leaders. 

Three areas of the population have been targeted by local government and school district officials: homebound seniors, young adults and school-aged children.

City government and Detroit Area Agency on Aging recently launched a “Homebound Vaccination Pilot Program” and has extended the service to almost 4,000 of people and identified 335 adults electing to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination in their homes.

“We know the homebound senior population better than any other organization in this community, so we had to step up when the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out did not immediately address the needs of homebound seniors,” said Ronald Taylor, Detroit Area Agency on Aging president and CEO.

With 150 teams, the homebound vaccination strategy is expected to run through November or early December.

Detroit goes door-to-door, pays drivers to promote COVID-19 vaccinations

State Rep. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit), 56, said she was hesitant to get vaccinated early in the process. Her concern was based on the after-effects that the vaccine could have on people, especially children, and their long-term health. She understands the apprehension that some have, but decided to get vaccinated and now encourages others to do so. It was a decision that she said she prayed about.

“This is about your overall health and peace of mind,” Young said.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows adults ages 18 to 24 are among the groups with the lowest reported vaccination coverage throughout the United States. As of July 6, 38.3% of this demographic has been vaccinated, according to the CDC.

The Rev. Horace Sheffield III, a Detroit pastor, had COVID-19 last spring. His community center has provided both testing and vaccinations for months. He is concerned that young adults have concerns about taking the vaccine and has attempted to partner with them to get people vaccinated. 

“You gotta get people who are in those categories who have had vaccinations but have experienced anxiety and reluctance to be the persons who are trying to convince folks,” said Sheffield.

Detroit tries to catch up in COVID vaccination rates, especially for younger residents

State Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), 35, continues to suggest that better messaging and more ready access to the vaccine in spaces where young adults can be helpful. 

“We’ve spent a year saying that young people aren’t in danger,” said Hollier about the early months of the pandemic.

In recent weeks, the 50,000-student Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) has provided vaccination opportunities for children aged 12 to 16. It will also do so at its Back to School Expo, which will be held at three locations on Aug. 28. 

“We encourage you to do your research and get vaccinated. If you’re already vaccinated, share this opportunity with friends and family. We can help protect one another by getting the vaccine,” said DPSCD general superintendent Nikolai Vitti. 

Gilchrist, a 38-year-old Detroit resident, pointed out this week that 27 people in his life have died from COVID-19. The chair of Whitmer’s Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities was vaccinated in April and has continually urged city residents to take the vaccine.

“More than 90% of the people who are hospitalized right now with COVID-19 are not vaccinated. More than 90% of the people right now who passed away since March 1 from COVID-19 were not vaccinated. It is a difference of life and death getting this vaccination,” said Gilchrist on Tuesday during a Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater in Detroit.

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Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.