The Washington Post Sunday
As vaccination deadline nears, House of Ruth holds clinic for sta≠, clients
“You know we Black folks do call and response, so: Hey family!” LaTasha Seliby-Perkins, a family physician at Georgetown University School of Medicine, called to a predominantly Black crowd of nearly 30 women sitting beneath a white tent.
“Hey!” the women called back from their chairs, some giggling, many holding slips of yellow ruled paper and black pens.
The women were either clients or staff of House of Ruth, a city contractor that serves women and families experiencing domestic violence and homelessness. Many were unvaccinated against the coronavirus. But all were willing to hear more about the vaccine — which to organizers, was a win.
The Friday event, hosted by House of Ruth, Mary’s Center and Georgetown University, was part of a push to reach the city’s unvaccinated population and comply with D.C.’s vaccine mandate. Government employees and city contractors must be fully vaccinated or get weekly tests for the coronavirus by Sept. 19.
The clinic comes as coronavirus cases in the D.C. region continue to climb, fueled by the highly contagious delta variant. Meanwhile, vaccine mandates are becoming more commonplace, with the Biden administration announcing a sweeping vaccine mandate on Thursday, requiring all businesses with more than 100 employees to require their workers to be immunized or face weekly testing. Maryland and Virginia put vaccine-or-testing mandates in place for at least some state and other workers last month.
Two-thirds of House of Ruth’s 91 staff members were fully vaccinated before Friday’s clinic, according to an early September survey.
Sandra Jackson, the organization’s executive director, hopes that only a few employees ultimately will opt out of vaccination — those who have medical or religious reasons not to get the shot. The organization plans to provide paid time off for those who opt for weekly testing, but Jackson said making that work with the group’s tight schedule is “going to be quite arduous.”
House of Ruth, a fixture in the city since 1976, has a site in Ward 7, where just 33 percent of residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 57 percent for the city at large, according to city data.
Vaccination rates in both Ward 7 and Ward 8, which are predominantly Black and low-income, have trailed behind other wards in the city from the beginning of the vaccine rollout in the winter and spring, contributing to racial disparities in who gets the vaccine.
The disparity has since narrowed, but citywide, Black residents continue to lag behind White and Asian residents in vaccination rates.
Jackson said she believes her staff and clients, who are mostly Black women, are hesitant to get the vaccine because they still don’t have access to information about the shots.
“I’ve heard people have legitimate questions, and they just don’t feel like they’ve gotten the answers,” Jackson said. “I’m not saying the information hasn’t been out there, but sometimes people don’t know where to go and get the information, they don’t have someone right before them they can ask these questions to.”
That led House of Ruth to host the event, providing a space for staff and clients to ask questions about the vaccine.
Neither House of Ruth case manager Jasmine Daniel, 28, nor her 26-year-old client wanted the vaccine. But both attended the event on Friday just to get more information. Daniel, who said she has never even gotten a flu shot, said that she planned to take regular coronavirus tests to comply with the mandate until she could make up her mind on the vaccine.
Her client, who spoke on the condition of anonymity over fears for her safety, hadn’t gotten the vaccine because she was scared. She figured once it’s required for her retail job or to eat in restaurants, she’d get the shot.
“I’m just a big scaredy,” she said before joining the other women under the tent. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the vaccine, I think it’s probably more safe than anything, but it’s just something new, something that I just felt like I don’t really know too much about it.”
She raised her hand several times during the event as her 1year-old daughter wobbled around, collecting pens from empty chairs. What were the differences between the vaccines, she wondered. Could children get it? What about booster shots?
Seliby-Perkins and Kyndra Jackson, a health professional at Mary’s Center, both drew from their medical expertise and their personal lives to answer three hours of questions. Could a plantbased diet help protect against the virus? How did the vaccines affect pregnant women?
Seliby-Perkins shared the harrowing experience of taking care of her unvaccinated husband and their 2-year-old, who both came down with the virus. Jackson talked about how she protects her children, 9 and 14, as they go to school each day by keeping a stash of testing kits at home and making sure their masks are clean and swapped out regularly.
The women in the crowd listened, laughed, shook their locand box-braid-crowned heads, and soothed crying babies.
“House of Ruth was specific about asking for Black female health professionals, and even though Black women are not homogenous, it’s important for us to address our cultural norms, speak in a language that makes sense for us, and to address the issues and fears that we have,” Seliby-Perkins said.
Nearly two dozen questions later, Mary’s Center staff began unloading white boxes of the Pfizer vaccine and setting up a table to administer the shots. Daniel and her client stood off to the side, discussing what they had just heard.
They came to the same conclusion.
“We’re actually going to get it,” Daniel’s client said, noting that she was still afraid. “I think it’s just a lot of myths, a lot of people talking about it, a lot of people against the government, but I mean, these are doctors we’re talking about so they give out more accurate information so I think I’m gonna go up there and get it.”
She and Daniel were among 11 people who decided to get vaccinated Friday. They plan to return for their second shots on Oct. 1, when House of Ruth is scheduled to host another clinic and Q&A.
While the organizers were pleased with the turnout, these sorts of clinics might not be enough to reach the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated population in Wards 7 and 8 is “shrinking very slowly,” said Ambrose Lane Jr., founder and chair of the Health Alliance Network in D.C. and a co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19.
“I think that we are past the hesitation phase — I think that we are into the active resistance phase,” Lane said. “No amount of coaxing and webinars and education will change them,” he said, adding that vaccine mandates are what’s needed.
The city’s vaccine mandate for government employees and contractors does appear be pushing people toward vaccination, said Patrick Ashley, the head of emergency response for the city’s health department.
“We know that different things convince different people,” Ashley said, “but as more mandates come into place, more and more individuals are getting the vaccine.”