Finding community in Boston Vaccine Day

Boston Vaccine Day
Shalana Barnes gets a coronavirus vaccine at Boston Vaccine Day

September 23, 2021—Keona Wynne wasn’t sure if people were going to show up.

For months, she and a team of volunteers had worked in their spare time—weekends and nights, between work meetings and classes—to organize Boston Vaccine Day, a daylong celebration aimed at promoting COVID-19 vaccinations and community health.

On Saturday, September 18, the big day arrived and Wynne was buzzing with nervous energy. She got to Boston’s Malcolm X Park at 6 a.m. to pick up trash, arrange tables and a kids’ play area, and finalize dozens of other details—including a collaboration with the health care startup Curative Inc. and Cataldo Ambulance to provide COVID-19 vaccines to any attendee who was eligible and interested. Everything was in place, except for the crowd.

“I was nervous,” said Wynne, a doctoral student and Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion Fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The word ‘vaccine’ is so polarizing nowadays, that I was nervous people might not show up.”

Celebrate and educate

Wynne had started noodling around with the idea of a Vaccine Day at the end of 2020. An organization called 1DaySooner had asked Wynne to join a national steering committee already working on a vaccine day, and Wynne pushed for the group to host the first such event in Boston.

The pandemic had inflicted pain, suffering, and distress on millions of people, and she wanted to have a day to reflect as a community on what has been lost and to celebrate the collective effort to turn the tide on COVID-19. Through the winter and spring, she and a few colleagues focused on building a coalition of like-minded people and organizations. They received the support of over 50 local public health leaders, as well as the Massachusetts Health Council, the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions, and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, among others.

While vaccines are a critical tool to beating back the pandemic, it frustrated Wynne to see that vaccination rates of Black and brown people in the Boston area—and across the country—were lagging. In her eyes, a Vaccine Day celebration located in the heart of the city’s Black community—Malcolm X Park in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood—could help close the gap by bringing people together, sharing information on COVID-19 vaccines, and encouraging people to get vaccinated.

What Wynne didn’t want, though, was the event to feel clinical or, even worse, boring.  After all, it was first and foremost meant to be a community celebration. So she and other organizers worked to get an estimated 100 local Black-owned vendors, artists, and organizations involved in the event. They arranged musical performances and T-shirt giveaways, basketball games, and a kids’ zone, where children could experiment with making homemade hand sanitizers and sudsy volcanoes.

“It was such a warm and welcoming environment,” Wynne said. “You could feel the sense of community.”

Community connections

Wynne grew up in Texas and moved to Boston in 2018 to pursue a master’s degree in bioethics at Harvard Medical School. In 2019, she enrolled as a doctoral student in Population Health Sciences, a joint collaboration between the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Chan School. When the pandemic hit, many of her classmates and friends went home to ride out the early days of COVID-19 with their families. That wasn’t an option for her.

“I was pretty isolated, but slowly friends started pulling me out of the house and invited me into their COVID bubbles to make sure I wasn’t always alone,” she said. “A lot of people, especially in Boston’s Black community, invited me into their homes during the pandemic, and I was really grateful and I didn’t take that lightly. My sense of community changed dramatically and working on Boston Vaccine Day helped me better realize that.”

Whatever nervousness Wynne felt about people not showing up to event quickly faded. Over the course of the day, Wynne estimated that 800 people attended the celebration. Her favorite part of the day, she said, was meeting a few families who didn’t know the event was taking place but happened to be walking by. They popped in and expected to hang around for a song or two, but ended up spending the entire afternoon at the park.

Importantly, 11 people received vaccinations, including an entire family, and many people asked about getting flu vaccines and COVID-19 vaccine boosters. Neither were available at the event, but Wynne said the fact that people were engaging and asking those types of questions highlights the importance of hosting these types of community events.

“It made me wonder what their access to care looks like and how we might be able to help improve it,” she said. “There are a lot of overlapping issues such as food insecurity and housing insecurity, and it is important to understand these issues at the community level.”

Wynne said she wants to host a similar event next year, though she hopes it doesn’t need to be as COVID-centric as this year. “There’s a need for this and a demand for this,” she said. “People want to learn about public health, and this can help us grow as a community.”

Chris Sweeney

Photo: John Tlumacki/Boston Globe