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

By: - April 21, 2021 2:56 pm

A line of people wait to enter the House of Dank, a popular cannabis business, in Northeast Detroit on April 20. State Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) said that city officials should consider partnering with such businesses to help encourage more people to take the COVID-19 vaccination. | Ken Coleman

As Detroit struggles to meet the challenge of getting more residents immunized against COVID-19, significantly fewer Motor City residents aged 16 to 29 have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine than the statewide average.

As of Tuesday, only 10% of those in the 16 to 29 age group in Detroit have been vaccinated against coronavirus.

The city and state record their demographic information differently. Statewide, 19.5% of those between 16 and 19 have received at least one vaccination dose; 25.2% of those between 20 and 29 have received at least one vaccination dose. 

Similarly, Detroit trails the statewide average significantly when it comes to the overall percentage of residents who have been vaccinated. Michigan is at 45.6%; while Detroit is only at 26.9%.

As of April 5, all Michigan residents 16 and older are eligible to receive the vaccine. The state’s goal is for 70% to be immunized against COVID and this week surpassed 6 million doses being administered.

Meanwhile, of the 161,634 doses administered through Monday at Ford Field, a federal government-identified regional vaccination site located in the city, only 11,375 — or 7% overall — have gone to Detroit residents, according to site officials. 

Ken Brake of Westland had his first COVID-19 vaccination at Ford Field in Detroit on March 23, 2021 | Ken Coleman

“Every single Detroiter 16 and older can get vaccinated,” Mayor Mike Duggan reiterated at a Monday press conference.

As for the low Ford Field numbers, he suggested that Detroit residents prefer to visit neighborhood locations, as opposed to traveling downtown and risk paying for parking that can range from $5 to $10.

He also announced 11 locations throughout the city are available for residents to go for walk-in COVID-19 vaccinations. Previously, they were required to call and schedule an appointment. Several locations include public schools as well as one recreation center and two community centers. 

“We have to change our strategy,” Duggan said.

Duggan said his administration is continuing talks with “trusted voices in the 16 to 35 age community,” but he doesn’t think the vaccination percentage rate in Detroit is significantly different than other communities across the state and nation.

But some Detroit leaders are concerned.

COVID-19 vaccination site at Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church in Detroit | Ken Coleman 

“Vaccine hesitancy is real,” said Bishop Edgar Vann, pastor of Second Ebenezer Baptist Church since 1977. “I think that when it comes to Black young adults, many of them are adamantly against taking the backseat. I think that that’s where the slowdown takes place.”

“There’s going to have to be a great push to reach young adults,” Vann added. “It’s going to have to be people in their own generation, speaking their own language to make the appeal, which will be completely different from anything we would say.”

Second Ebenezer Baptist has offered vaccination by appointment since every Saturday since January. In Detroit, about 26% of those between 30 to 64 years old have been vaccinated. About 54% of Detroiters aged 65 and older have been vaccinated. 

Overall, 18.8% of Michiganders 30 to 39 have been vaccinated; 21.8% of those 40 to 49 have been vaccinated; and 36.6% of those 50 to 64 have been vaccinated.  

Denise Fair, the city’s health department director who’s 37, publicly took the vaccine earlier in December in an effort to promote its safety. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, a 38-year-old Detroit resident, received his first dose on Saturday. 

State Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), 35, also is vaccinated. He said that the vaccination percentage among younger Detroiters is low because there has not been enough of a concerted effort to meet the age group where they are.

“At the weed shop, that’s where I’d be trying to get vaccine doses [distributed],” said Hollier. “At the liquor store. Places where you know people are going to be. The rec centers. All the summer school places.”

Detroit kicks off COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Hollier also points out that churches are more of a draw for seniors and that much of the early messaging and guidance was aimed at getting older residents tested and vaccinated. He believes that messaging needs to be expanded to include young adults. Hollier has been a guest voice on WJLB-FM’s “The Bushman” radio broadcast that is geared toward listeners in the 18 to 35 age demographic. 

“People always want to act like young people aren’t making good decisions,” Hollier said. “They’re just making decisions on different input. If your life expectancy is 30 versus 75, why would you plan for retirement? If the only time you go to the doctor is when you need urgent care, why would you have a primary care doctor?”

Rachel Kabala, a 16-year-old Detroit Benjamin Carson High School student

However, Rachel Kabala, a Detroit Benjamin Carson Academy student who received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week, said that the messaging urging younger people to take the vaccine is starting to take hold. 

The 16-year-old junior, who is president of the Detroit Public Schools Community District’s student body organization, believes that more young adults will take the vaccination as more education about its benefits resonate with them.

“The people who I know are definitely positive about taking the vaccine,” said Kabala, whose goal is to attend the University of Michigan. “It’s important so we can put this virus behind us.”

Survey says Detroiters want more COVID relief

A new survey shows Detroit residents have placed coronavirus relief as their top ask of the federal government. 

Conducted by Wayne State University, 621 Detroit residents were asked to choose from a list of 10 priorities on what they believe should be the top priorities for President Joe Biden. Of the 571 respondents to the question, 225, or 39%, said it should be COVID-19 — making it the top response. 

WSU’s Center for Urban Studies partnered with the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus “to better understand the priorities of Detroit residents and identify meaningful solutions to community problems.” It was conducted between Jan. 15 and March 1. Survey interviewers reached 953 individuals, 678 of whom confirmed they were Detroit residents with attention paid to geographic balance. 

Given the survey results and the resident concerns about COVID-19, why aren’t more city residents taking the vaccine?

Keith Williams, Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus chair, said that the biggest segment of Detroit who have been resisting vaccinations are the 16 to 35 age demographic. 

Gov. signs order creating coronavirus task force on racial disparities 

He said he thinks they have been influenced largely by an herbal healer, pathologist and naturalist known as Dr. Sebi and, to a lesser extent, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Sebi, born Alfredo Bowman in Honduras, according to a website promoting his work, died in 2016. In recent years, several high-profile hip-hop artists like the late Nipsey Hussle have promoted his anti-vaccination messages in their recordings and in their public statements.

“I say to my brothers and sisters in Africa … if they come up with a vaccine, be careful,” Farrakhan said in July 2020 and extended his warning to African Americans.  

“Do not take their medications,” he added. “We need to call a meeting of our skilled virologists, epidemiologists and students of biology and chemistry. We need to give ourselves something better. There are 14 therapies we can treat it with. The virus is a pestilence from heaven. The only way to stop it is going to heaven.”

Williams said that more than access to the vaccine, Detroiters want more financial resources to address structural problems that have always been there but have increased during the pandemic. They included job training, health care, access to business loans and more.

In March, Biden signed another COVID relief bill that has allocated more than $10 billion in aid for Michigan state government, schools and local governments.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

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 Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.