On a brisk morning in southeast Washington, D.C.’s Congress Heights neighborhood, a handful of residents lined up, bundled and masked, to be let into St. Elizabeth’s East Entertainment and Sports Arena. The space was recently converted into a high-capacity vaccination clinic, and while there was a subdued sense of anticipation in the air, the scene wasn’t exactly a tense one. It felt more like the line for advance tickets to a movie than it did a group of people waiting to receive a potentially life-saving vaccine.
Bontivia Ben lives 20 minutes away from the St. Elizabeth vaccination site and said she heard about the opportunity to get vaccinated in Congress Heights through her employer. She was not impressed by the rollout in the nation’s capital.
“It’s been slow coming out,” Ben told The Daily Beast after getting the vaccine.
National statistics agree with Ben’s assessment. Only 11 percent of people in D.C. are fully vaccinated, putting the District at the bottom of the rankings, ahead of only Utah, Micronesia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, according to the New York Times. Maryland and Virginia, D.C.’s neighbors, both have full-vaccination rates closer to 15 percent.
The site where Ben received her vaccine was one of two launched on March 13 to course-correct after what critics described as a disastrously slow, inequitable rollout in D.C.—even as the Biden administration has sought to make equity a cornerstone of the process nationwide. On the day of the new clinics’ launch, less than 3 percent of Ward 8 was fully vaccinated, according to a local ABC affiliate, even as about 12 percent of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a grievous impact on Ward 8, which has suffered a higher death rate than any of the District’s other wards. To make matters worse, when D.C. started distributing vaccines, a disproportionate amount of the earliest appointments went to white residents. Several nonprofits complained in February that they had suddenly been flooded with people from outside the communities they serve, and at the launch of the District’s 1B distribution phase, only 94 vaccine appointments were successfully scheduled for Ward 8 residents that week. (Compare that to 2,465 appointments scheduled in wealthy Ward 3.)
According to local leaders, these problems are symptomatic of the two main breakdowns that have hampered vaccine distribution: technological inequity and lack of outreach. And a lingering question for some residents and local officials, as Congress held a hearing on D.C. statehood Monday, was whether being a state might have saved lives.
“It definitely would play out differently if D.C. was a state,” said Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) Salim Adofo. “If the funds were given to us as a state, earlier, then that increases the chances of getting information out earlier to the residents.”
Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization's Center on National and Global Health Law and a pandemic expert at Georgetown, agreed that D.C. statehood might have bolstered the effort.
“(D.C.) probably would have had a more ample vaccine supply, and would be able to set its own guidance as clearly as it wanted to,” Gostin told The Daily Beast.
Of course, some states have had their own disastrous rollouts, and some of the nuts and bolts issues affecting the vaccine process in DC are not specific to the district. Among them: gaps in access to technology that have manifested in inequitable vaccine distribution.
“If there’s a way you can gain access to scarce resources through the internet and information, it is bound to favor the well-off and the educated—those who can afford to just surf the internet for the best vaccine opportunities,” said Gostin. “The poor residents of D.C. don’t have that same choice. They’ve been left behind.”
Adofo has seen this come into play first hand. Many of the seniors in his district do not use the Internet.
“It turns out giving the information to the community as to how they can get it and the places they can go, that’s the difficult part,” he told The Daily Beast.
“It’s just not effective in reaching our community if the only tactic, or the primary tactic, is online,” added Brittany Geneva Cummings, also an ANC in Ward 8.
The line to get into the arena lengthened as the morning wore on, from four people around 9:15 a.m. to 20 an hour later. The arena is in the heart of Ward 8, which is 92 percent Black, but nearly half the people waiting for the jab were white.
“I think it’s been uneven,” said Wayne Jones, who works for the D.C. Public School System and traveled from Oxon Hill, Maryland, to get the jab. “Just the way they’ve been pushing it out and a lot of people haven’t been able to get it. People have been coming from other areas and getting it.”
In early March, NBC4 Washington found that over 39 percent of the District’s vaccines had gone to individuals who were not District residents. Since then, D.C. has capped the proportion of eligible non-residents who can receive the vaccine in the District at 10 percent.
Spokespeople for the mayor and health department in Washington did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But D.C. has made several tweaks to its rollout process to help make vaccine distribution more equitable. D.C. Health, the local health agency leading the rollout, started letting the organizations doing the vaccinating schedule their own appointments, which gave them more latitude to prioritize community members and regular patients. They also rebooted their online signup process after the original version repeatedly crashed while people tried to get appointments. The new process is based on a “pre-registration” system, and centers equity in part by focusing the distribution of appointments on prioritized zip codes.
In the wake of the changes, some residents had a sunnier outlook.
Hattie Adams went to the Washington Senior Wellness Center—a squat, red-brick building in Ward 7—to get her vaccine. She said that registering for an appointment was difficult at first, but that after the launch of the new system, she got an appointment almost immediately.
“At first it seemed that other jurisdictions were getting it faster than we were,” Adams said. “But now it seems to be more equal.”
Chuck Burke, who works for the D.C. Courts System, said he had also seen positive change.
“As it’s become more available, I think that it’s starting to see some level of equity,” said Burke. “Case in point: it being here. Located in this community, easy access for all the people.”
Janeese Lewis George, who started her first term on the Council of the District of Columbia in January, said that the new system looked like an improvement. But she cautioned that the dysfunctional early days of the rollout could have lingering effects.
“When they couldn’t get through on the website or call center after several attempts, many of them just sort of gave up,” George said of her constituents. “There’s a trust that just has to be rebuilt... I think this situation highlighted what we’ve known for a long time, which is that D.C.’s technological infrastructure systems needed to be updated decades ago.”
George is the councilmember representing Ward 4, which has a large population of people who speak English as their second language. For George, this puts language access front and center.
“Two weeks into the new system, we still haven’t made it available in other languages, other than English,” George said. “This is a big barrier for immigrant communities who need the vaccine.”
D.C. Health’s pre-registration portal has been available in just English since March 10, though you can now translate the portal into six languages using Google Translate. A city official has said translations for several languages are due to be finished by around the end of the month.
A woman named Anju, who declined to share her last name, was not able to book an appointment online. However, when she accompanied her son to an appointment at the Providence Health System clinic in Ward 5, they were able to write her in for an appointment at the same clinic the following week. Anju decided to get the vaccine despite concerns about side effects—even though all the evidence shows them to be safe and effective.
“There’s always been a controversy about vaccines whether it’s this one or another one,” she said after getting her vaccine. “This one I guess more because [COVID] has been so deadly and there hasn’t been enough time really to see what’s gonna happen [with the vaccine].”
Other recent vaccine recipients said that they have co-workers or friends who are considering waiting on their vaccination, or foregoing it entirely. Wayne Jones, the D.C. Public Schools employee, said that most of his co-workers do not want the shot by virtue of conspiracy theories and fears over potential side effects, despite the evidence.
“I think a lot of people are skeptical about it because of the history that the Black community has had,” said ANC Adofo, citing as an example the Tuskegee experiments, in which scientists conducted unethical studies on Black men without their consent between 1932 and the early 1970s.
“Once people can get educated about it, I think they’re able to make a more informed decision,” said Adofo.
Both the mayor’s office and the federal government deserve some of the blame for the problems with vaccine rollout, according to Councilmember George. But as to whether D.C. would have handled the rollout better if it had statehood, she wasn’t sure—even as she supported the cause.
“Every state had issues with distribution,” George told The Daily Beast. “We need statehood because we deserve full equality.”