President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 vaccination program during an event in the South Court Auditorium on July 6, 2021 in Washington.
It’s all in an effort to target the stubbornly resistant, or hard-to-reach populations as fear grows that the virus could reemerge thanks to the highly contagious Delta variant.
Much of the coverage of those populations has focused on Trump supporters who have resisted vaccination as a matter of political identity. And data show that vaccination rates do tend to overlap with partisan leanings. But there are other hard-to-reach communities, including young people, Black and minority groups that traditionally vote Democratic.
“We’re no longer in the days where 6,000 people are getting vaccinated. If 12 people are getting vaccinated in the barbershop on a Saturday morning — that’s a big deal,” said Dr. Cameron Webb, senior policy adviser for equity on the White House Covid-19 response team. “And we think that that kind of person-to-person, real hand-to-hand work of continuing to reach more people, that’s what this phase of the vaccine effort is going to look like.”
At the “It’s Official Barbershop,” the obstacles to the vaccine run much deeper than mere apprehension. The scourge of gun violence has consumed the lives of Englewood residents, as it has in other predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods of Chicago. With nearly 300 homicides since January, and already more than 1,500 shootings, the city is facing one of the bloodiest summers in recent history.
Anecdotally, customers grimly admit they’re used to the persistent violence, but this year, they’re startled by what seems like younger shooting victims. While the White House has said it would work with officials in Chicago, among other big cities, to combat the flow of weapons, the talk here is of a lack of real economic opportunities — good-paying jobs that earn more than just minimum wage — more youth programs and confronting drug dealing.
“Hey, look. We know a lot of crackheads. We know no crackheads dying from Covid,” Perry said to laughter all around. But then he took on a more sober tone.
“You gotta find the humor of what’s going on around you,” Perry said. “I mean, I don’t think I know anybody who died of Covid. I know more people who died of violence this year than Covid.”
In the 60621 zip code, there have been roughly 2,400 cases of Covid from March of 2020 through July 3 of this year, according to data from the city of Chicago. In that same period, 89 people died. (The city notes that for the week ending in July 3, there were no new Covid cases and no deaths in 60621.) To this crew in Englewood, the numbers suggest that the problem simply isn’t as existential as is often portrayed. According to a Chicago Sun-Times tracker, 36 people were victims of homicide in Englewood over the past year.
Perry said he’s known two or three people who had Covid. All survived. Since March, he’s known 10 people who were shot, some of whom died, including children. Ayers knew two people who had Covid, both lived. Since May, Ayers said he personally knows 15 people who were shot — four of them died.
“They watch the news, they know what they gotta be focused on. They focus on Covid right now more than the real problem,” Perry said of the White House. “We are at war here. This is a real war.”
Webb said the White House is well aware of the complexity of issues facing Englewood residents, who, he said, aren’t strangers to battling multiple health and safety challenges at once. Still, he said, the barbershop strategy is one that lends a credible voice to their message that Covid-19 are not just safe, but essential. The White House is about to reach its goal of enlisting 1,000 barbershops and salons to deliver the vaccines. They believe that voices trusted inside individual communities will be more effective at selling people on getting the shots than government bureaucrats. Webb cited a recent day in a Las Vegas salon where the owner vouched for the shot over Instagram, attracting about a dozen people to his shop to get a shot.
It’s a slog. But even at places where skepticism is abundant, there are some signs of small gains. Channal Coleman, owner of the It’s Official Barbershop, was among the few in the shop last week who had been vaccinated. She credited the White House, saying it had “come and checked on us instead of calling.”
“A lot of people are scared to come to Englewood,” she said. “That was a blessing.”