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One shot, free transportation and on-site child care: How groups in D.C. are working to vaccinate people in hard-hit Ward 8

A volunteer with the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative assists people waiting to be vaccinated during an event for Ward 8 residents at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in Washington. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

The line for the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine on Saturday morning wrapped around several blue and green tennis courts in Southeast Washington and was more than two dozen people deep.

“I’m prayerful and anxious, but at the same time, I’m ready to just get it done so I can protect myself and others who are around me,” said Lezora Arter, 53, who wore a mask bearing civil rights icon John Lewis’s famous “Good Trouble” quote.

Cora Masters Barry, a longtime D.C. civic leader, got the idea for the “Don’t Miss Your Shot” event at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center one morning in February. She woke up about 6 a.m., turned on CNN and saw statistics about Black people getting vaccinated at lower rates than White people. She grabbed her computer, clicked into the D.C. Health website and saw that the stats were mirrored in the District.

The vaccination rate in Ward 8 — which is predominantly Black and low income — is among the lowest in the city, despite having among the highest coronavirus case rates and death rates in the city.

“It was just so devastating to me, and I thought about the fact that we have the . . . facility in the heart of the community that’s not hardly functional because of covid — at that point anyway, it’s getting better now — and I said why don’t we use that facility for the community and register and serve Ward 8 residents only,” said Masters Barry, the founder and chief executive of the tennis center and ex-wife of Marion Barry, the former D.C. mayor who died in 2014.

The goal of the event was to vaccinate 1,000 Ward 8 residents with the Johnson & Johnson shot. She got the support and vaccine doses from the D.C. Department of Health. George Washington University and Howard University were among the partners who provided vaccine administrators.

Masters Barry worked with several community- and faith-based organizations to get the word out, including the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative and Martha’s Table. The groups knocked on doors, placed phone calls and sent text messages and emails. They also made videos and hosted nine covid-19 vaccination educational sessions, said Nekkita Beans, 25, special projects coordinator for the collaborative.

“We were out door-knocking at the locations in the communities, at the schools, getting families registered, because we know that in Ward 8 the digital divide that exists is number one,” Beans said. “Families don’t have access to the technology to be able to register or to be able to access the city’s portal, so it was important to us to establish our own way of registration, so that we are getting the vaccinations directly to the people, meeting people where they are.”

By the time registration closed on Friday, 849 people had signed up for appointments, Beans said.

“No one could say they didn’t know in Ward 8 about this because the word of mouth was just incredibly strong,” said D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large), who attended the event and was pleased by the turnout.

Volunteers worked a call center on site on Saturday to remind people of their appointments and to determine whether people faced any barriers in getting to the vaccination site, Beans said.

The organizers offered Uber promotional codes to people if they needed help getting to the center and sent cars directly to people’s homes if they didn’t have the tech tools to book the rides themselves. There was also a designated area for children, overseen by staff from a child-care center.

The goal was to make the space friendly to families, especially working parents, which is why the event happened on the weekend, Masters Barry said.

Ronnetta Whaley, 37, works at a day-care center and lives about 15 minutes away from the tennis center and brought her 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter with her. She previously tried to book an appointment with Community of Hope but she said she kept getting scheduled for appointments during the week.

“It was kind of hard because I had to literally take the rest of the day so I could go do it,” Whaley said as her children snacked and enjoyed the go-go music that was playing at the exit.

The one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine was a big draw for people.

“We only wanted to do Johnson & Johnson — one and done,” Masters Barry said. “It’s difficult enough to get people there; it would be impossible to get them back.” Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two shots, spaced several weeks apart.

Gertha Davis, 75, said she felt “wonderful” after getting the shot. She said she heard about the event on television.

“When they made it known it was in our neighborhood, I decided to come and get one today,” said Davis, who has a lung infection. “I don’t like shots, and when they said one and done, that was me.”

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) stopped by with her daughter, Miranda, to tour the site. People received shots inside on covered tennis courts. After getting the vaccine, people had the opportunity to stop by several tables and speak with staff, including from Whitman-Walker Health and Food & Friends, that were set up near the exit.

People also had the opportunity to pick up boxes of food from the Capital Area Food Bank, T-shirts with an image of Marion Barry, masks and other goodies.

“You have any friends and family in Ward 8, please tell them to come on out,” the DJ said as newly vaccinated people left the site.

People hoped that getting their shot would inspire their friends and family members to do the same.

“I’m the first of my family to do it, because we all had a stigma about this, but I feel good about doing it,” said Maria Johnson, 50. “I just wanted to break through a barrier. I'm the matriarch of my family and I just want them to see that if Grandma can get it, or Mom can get it, we’re going to be okay.”

Johnson added that her children were grown and that it was ultimately their decision whether to get vaccinated, and that she didn’t want to force anyone to get the shots.

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