Carly Bencivenga leaves information regarding the COVID-19 vaccine at a home in South Memphis while volunteering with the “Get the Facts, Trust the Vax” campaign on May 13. The campaign is a part of a coordinated effort to increase vaccinations and reduce the infection rate in predominantly Black ZIP codes. Photo by Hannah Grabenstein

The bright yellow pamphlets stuffed in doors or dropped on front stoops were hard to miss. They were entitled “Get the Facts, Trust the Vax” and were distributed Thursday and Friday by volunteers in ZIP Code 38106 in South Memphis.

The booklets are part of a campaign to increase vaccination rates in that ZIP code and others where concerning information has emerged. Nearly 80% of newly reported cases of coronavirus are in Black people who primarily live in these areas, according to Shelby County Health Department deputy director David Sweat. The Health Department, Mayor Lee Harris’ office and Memphis for All, a nonprofit that champions progressive causes and candidates, are coordinating the campaign. 

The packets, which also included a mask and directions to two vaccination sites in the area, are a new effort to reach out to communities with low vaccination rates and disproportionately high rates of coronavirus infections. Experts have been saying for months creative methods would be needed to get the vaccine to vulnerable populations. 

“There’s a very dramatic increase in the fraction of our cases that are occurring among our Black residents and it corresponds really with the vaccine campaign.”

David Sweat, Shelby County Health Department deputy director

Although cases of COVID-19 are holding steady or even slightly declining in Shelby County, the percentage of new cases are disproportionately among Black people, Sweat said.

“There’s a very dramatic increase in the fraction of our cases that are occurring among our Black residents and it corresponds really with the vaccine campaign,” he said. 

“The virus is just going to go where it’s able to continue to be transmitted. And as areas become more heavily vaccinated, it’s going to become more concentrated in the places where vaccine uptake is lower,” Sweat said.

In Shelby County, more than 340,000 people or 36% have received at least one shot. Of that, just over 120,000 or 37% percent are Black and 134,000 or 41% percent are white. 

ZIP code 38106, where volunteers canvassed, is among areas with low vaccine uptake and high infection rates. The area is 96% Black, only 24% vaccinated and has a case rate of 249 infections per 100,000.

In the ZIP codes with the lowest vaccine uptake – 38127 and 38115, which are 19% and 21% vaccinated – residents are 84% Black in both. The case rate per 100,000 residents is 237 and 288, respectively. While those ZIP Codes don’t currently have the highest case rates, they are still much higher than areas with greater vaccine uptake, Sweat said.

Volunteers collect materials before heading out to distribute them in South Memphis on May 13. Photo by Hannah Grabenstein

The ZIP code currently with the highest case rate – 340 per 100,000 residents – is 38118, which includes Oakhaven and Parkway Village. That ZIP code has a vaccine uptake rate of just under 22% and is 77% Black.

Areas with high vaccine uptake, in East Memphis and along the Poplar Avenue corridor, are predominantly white and have case rates as low as 65 per 100,000. The ZIP codes with the highest uptake – 38138 and 38139, which are nearly 60% vaccinated – are 87% and 92% white.

There have been local incentives. Earlier this month, the City of Memphis announced the “Shot for Shot Sweepstakes,” a promotion where residents who get vaccinated before May 31 can enter a contest to win a new car. In April, officials gave away gift cards and coupons to thousands of people at the Pipkin vaccine site. Harris has also begun a community council to brainstorm and evaluate ideas to increase vaccine uptake.

Other cities are using incentives, too. In New Orleans, officials partnered with a seafood dealer to offer a free pound of crawfish to every person who gets a shot. Ohio will hold five lotteries in which vaccinated people can win $1 million. West Virginia is offering a $100 savings bond to every person between 16 and 35 who gets a shot.

And in an effort to increase convenience, New York City has set up mass vaccination sites at subway stations where commuters can quickly get shots.

Nationally, 47% percent of people have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The vast majority are adults. On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 to 15. 

‘People just want information’ 

The packets distributed last week also included a letter from Harris. “One of the most important things each of us can do is make the case to neighbors and loved ones about the importance of vaccination,” the letter says.

The pamphlet answers common questions, such as “Can I get COVID-19 from the vaccine?” and “Does the COVID-19 vaccine enter your cells and change your DNA?” (The answer to both questions is no). 

And it includes a map listing two nearby vaccine sites and shows bus routes to them. 

The packets that were distributed included masks, information about the COVID-19 vaccine, maps with vaccine sites and public transportation options, and a letter from Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris. Photo by Hannah Grabenstein

More events, possibly with face-to-face conversation, are a possibility, said Dominique Winfrey, the county’s COVID-19 coordinator.

“We’ll look at response rate and how it went. We just really want to target communities that have low vaccination right now. Because people just want information,” she said. 

Getting out good information to people is what drove volunteers Leah Ford, 27; Carly Bencivenga, 28; and Moira Tescher, 27, to the door-to-door event.

For about an hour, the three dropped off around 60 pamphlets in the South Memphis neighborhood of College Park. Small groups of volunteers targeted other areas in the 38106 ZIP code, with the goal of hitting up 1,000 residences over two days.

The high percentage of Black people among reported cases is reminiscent of the beginning of the pandemic, Sweat said. Essential workers couldn’t stay home or socially distance, and for months, Black Americans were contracting the disease at much higher rates than white Americans.

An August 2020 report from the National Urban League showed the death rate for Black Americans was 70 per 100,000, more than twice the rate of 30 per 100,000 for white Americans.

That disparity largely evened over the course of the pandemic, Sweat said, and national rates now show that 11% of cases and 13% of deaths have occured in Black people, who represent nearly 13% of the country. In April 2020 in Shelby County, 70% of COVID-19 patients were Black. By January, 56% of reported cases where race was known had occurred in Black people.

At a press conference Thursday, Sweat said that the numbers have again shifted, and that for the past month, 78% of new cases reported were in Black residents. By contrast, Black people comprise 54% of the county’s population. Those data reflect that some segments of the population – including Black residents – have lower vaccine uptake and are therefore still at risk for contracting the disease, he said.

White Republicans now most ‘unwilling’ group

Some people haven’t taken the vaccine because they’re skeptical of the shots or unsure of their safety or efficacy.

Before the shots were approved and during the initial rollout, vaccine hesitancy among Black people caused concern. But in the following months, hesitancy among Black Americans has dropped. Now, white Republicans are the major cause for concern.

A recent Tennessee poll found hesitant Black residents were more likely to be open to receiving a vaccine than white Republicans, who “represent the most pronounced unwilling/no interest segment of the population.”

The CDC estimates that nearly 24% of Shelby County residents are vaccine-hesitant, with just over 14% “strongly hesitant,” leaving the county highly vulnerable to an outbreak.

Input from the community council may guide future vaccine promotional events, a spokesperson for Harris said Friday. But Winfrey said that dropping off the literature is “a start.

“That’s what we want. People thinking about it, considering it, and then they can make a decision if they want to take that next step.”

Hannah Grabenstein is a reporter for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at hannah.grabenstein@mlk50.com

Rafael Figueroa, a journalist with La Prensa Latina, translated this story to Spanish.


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