Two Erie County ZIP codes trail all others
Bashan Stewart understands why some people might be hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
He waited weeks after he became eligible to receive his first dose, even though Stewart educates people about COVID-19 as a community health worker at the Booker T. Washington Center, 1720 Holland St.
“I had watched videos on YouTube and heard different things about the vaccine,” said Stewart, 45. “My wife ended up getting the vaccine before I did and she was OK. I was the only one in my house not to get it. It took me about a month to think about it and get the vaccine.”
Vaccine hesitancy is a common issue throughout Erie County. More than half of county residents are not fully vaccinated, and that rate is much higher in certain areas of the county.
At first glance, the county’s two ZIP codes with the lowest rates of fully vaccinated people couldn’t be more different.
The 16401 ZIP code (23.3% are fully vaccinated, based on the county’s 2019 population estimate) encompasses southwestern Erie County, including Albion Borough. The 16503 ZIP code (28.2%) includes Erie’s east side between East Sixth and East 26th streets.
The 16503 is part of Erie’s urban core with 55% of residents being Black or Hispanic, compared to the 16401, which is mostly rural and nearly 80% white. Politically, there are about five times as many registered Democrats as Republicans in the 16503, while registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in the 16401 by about 20%.
But the two areas do share some common obstacles to getting vaccinated.
“We tend to see vaccine hesitancy in places with adults who have lower income and education levels, and transportation issues,” said Charlotte Berringer, R.N., director of community health services with the Erie County Department of Health.
Lack of transportation just one obstacle
Getting a COVID-19 shot in Albion usually takes planning, some free time and access to a car or truck.
Most of the area vaccination clinics in early 2021 were held in Erie, which is 25 minutes away from the borough. A handful of mobile vaccination clinics have been held in Albion over the summer, including one Saturday at the Northwestern Food Pantry.
“We have a lot of younger people who just don’t have a driver’s license or a dependable vehicle,” said Lisa Watson, D.O., a family medicine physician at Albion Family Practice. “Even when they schedule a clinic in Edinboro, that can be a problem for folks here in Albion.”
But transportation isn’t the only issue, said Greg Hemmis, president of the Albion Borough Council.
There are a number of residents, mostly older people, who keep to themselves and rarely gather in groups or visit public places. As a result, they don’t consider themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19, Hemmis said.
“Some of it runs deeper than that, though,” Hemmis said. “I wouldn’t even call it political, but a mistrust of government.”
Watson agreed, saying she treats several employees at the State Correctional Institution at Albion who refuse to get vaccinated.
The prison has reported 969 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, including 235 cases involving staff. Only 10% of the prison’s 611 staff members have been vaccinated, compared to 95% of the 2,097 inmates, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
“Many of the guards I know have a military background, where they had to do what they were told, including getting vaccinations,” Watson said. “Now that they aren’t in the military, they feel like they just don’t want to be pushed around.”
That reluctance persists, in a slightly different form, in the 16503.
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Shantel Hilliard, executive director of the Booker T. Washington Center, has been working since the COVID-19 vaccines came out to get more shots into the arms of people of the 16503 and other urban neighborhoods.
Hilliard said he is fighting decades of health racism and misinformation.
“There is a lot of history in our country because of prior situations in regard to health disparities,” Hilliard said. “People in our community have less access to health insurance, access to a primary care physician, less access to other medical resources. That helps create this hesitancy.”
Stewart said he hears from people almost every day about why they aren’t rushing to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“They believe the vaccine has a microchip in it, or they worry about the side effects, or they have heard stories about the Tuskegee (experiments on Black men with syphilis) and don’t trust the government,” Stewart said.
‘By evening we were putting them in body bags’
Brandon Adams, a nurse practitioner, hears the same explanations when he asks patients at Wayne Primary Care if they have been vaccinated.
Wayne Primary Care, part of the Primary Health Network, is one of the relatively few primary care offices in the 16503, though several others are located just outside of the ZIP code.
If a patient is hesitant to get the vaccine, Adams sometimes shares stories of when he was a registered nurse working in one of Saint Vincent Hospital’s intensive care units during the surge in COVID-19 cases in December.
“I’ll give them as much as I think they can handle,” said Adams, who became a nurse practitioner in January. “I tell them about patients who were on oxygen talking to me in the morning and by evening we were putting them in body bags.”
The frank talk is effective. Adams — who wears a button that says “Have a question about the COVID-19 vaccine? Just ask us” — said he is able to help reluctant patients to decide to get vaccinated about half of the time.
But many more people in the county remain unvaccinated. Stewart, the community health worker, said it’s up to each individual to make up their own mind about the vaccine.
“It’s all about their own decision,” Stewart said. “I just give them the facts.”
On Saturday, Debbie Hanes went to the Northwest Food Pantry to receive a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine during a mobile vaccination clinic.
Hanes, 52, said a new job spurred her and her husband, Raymond, to get vaccinated, months after she first became eligible.
“I didn’t leave my house during most of COVID so I wasn’t too worried,” Hanes said. “I now have a job as a home health aide and thought that I better get vaccinated for my elderly clients.”