The last time Health Chief Marty Martinez was at the Reggie Lewis Center, it was prior to the pandemic and for a summer youth employment fair.
It was a time of hope and excitement for young people who were looking to have a great and productive summer working at jobs or internships.
Then came the dark days of COVID-19.
Never did Martinez ever believe in his wildest dreams on that day of the employment fair that the next time he stepped foot in the Center, it would be for an improbable, but also hopeful, situation – one that included the hope of immunity via mass vaccinations for a relentless virus that has sickened, and even killed, his fellow Bostonians.
On Wednesday morning, though, Martinez found himself in just that situation standing on the cusp of Mission Hill while rolling out the City-sponsored site where folks 75 and older are now getting vaccinated for COVID-19 this week.
“For me to have been here the last time for the fair in the gym and now to be here is very important,” said Martinez. “It makes sense. It’s part of the community of Roxbury and part of our City. Using it as a way to make it a part of the solution makes sense. It has served the community in many ways and to integrate it into our vaccination plan is just another role it can play in serving this community.”
The place that has hosted City Championship track meets, basketball games, community events for Mission Hill organizations and even health food expos has definitely made an improbable turn in becoming a sought-after vaccination spot that accompanies the state-run Fenway Park mass vaccination site – right now with both of those sites open only for those 75 and older.
Vaccinations began at the Reggie Lewis on Tuesday and Martinez said they would have a goal of 1,200 shots administered per week at the outset.
“That’s how we’ll start and the state will take over eventually and then it will increase in the number of doses per week to about 2,500 later in the month and next month,” he said.
There are about 40 volunteers that are needed to run the facility, he said, and they are tapping into volunteers and Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) employees as well. Basically, anyone who has given a vaccination in their professional lives is called on for help in getting the site rolling with staff.
“We are tapping into the Medical Reserve Corps,” he said. “People can sign up for that and they get checked and then approved. We’re using volunteers and City volunteers and BPHC and our own clinical staff – everybody we can find so we can get this set up and operational.”
Roxbury Community College President Valerie Roberson said they would have never believed their facility would have been used for such a purpose, but they are glad to partner with the City to help bring a solution to the Mission Hill and Greater Roxbury community.
“I think when the vaccine became available, and people began to start working out access to it, few would have thought the Reggie Lewis would have a role,” she said. “A lot of people, though, have been there for events and Marty Martinez reached out to us and asked us to consider it. It really gives us a way to be part of the solution – a solution for our students because the vaccine will enable people to return to school and have students in person. We are proud to be part of this process.”
One of the key reasons to locate a mass vaccination site in Mission Hill for Martinez and Roberson was to have such a familiar facility in the community available to people of color and those living nearby. That was a way to eliminate the disparities in Black and brown communities when it came to the effects of COVID-19.
“This is a chance for us to play a part in erasing that disparity and that’s also a big part of the overall solution,” she said.
That has been challenging in the first week of operations though, as most observers have noted that appointments at the Reggie Lewis site have been for mostly white senior citizens from around the city and not so much people of color from Mission Hill or Roxbury.
Mission Hill native Ron Bell, a roving reporter for Boston Praise Radio and founder of Dunk the Vote, said he was disappointed with the rollout of the vaccination effort at Reggie Lewis, but didn’t know exactly why it has gone that way. He said he plans to use the platform he has to raise the issue up and try to get information and appointments for those who live in Mission Hill and Roxbury.
“When I saw what has happened at the Reggie Lewis Center, it just bothers me,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to be doing with my organizing. I’ve done a lot of voter registration issues with Dunk the Vote, but we start with our health and the inequity. I can’t believe that Black people aren’t going there or maybe it’s because the Internet or maybe they don’t have transportation. The trust issue is a major thing and they have every right to not trust. Whatever it is, it’s not good. I want to use my platform to deal with this issue. I hope I can give people the information and they can make their own decision, pro or con, but at least they will know.”
Martinez said the effort at Reggie Lewis will start small, and will be convenient for a lot of people, but would also not be as large and intimidating as Fenway Park might be.
“It’s an opportunity to get people in and out,” he said. “It’s not inconvenient or Fenway Park.”
Once one secures an appointment by day and time, they show up and are screened for symptoms. After registering, they go into the gym area to a vaccination station and receive the shot. After that, they are taken to a waiting area where they sit in a socially-distanced space for 15 minutes. On the way out, they book their second appointment for about two or three weeks later.
The Reggie Lewis site will eventually merge into a City/State effort later in February.