Nearing the Liacouras Center entrance for the BDCC clinic; Valerie Erwin and sister Alethia after getting vaccinated

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I am a gray-haired Black woman living in a society that doesn’t value old people, or Black people, or women. When the pandemic hit, my world shrank. I started working from home. I stopped having my family over for dinner. I gave up public transit, my major form of transportation. Every story about a Black person who was denied care (even, in one case, a doctor!), fueled my fear that if I got COVID, I would die. Then a vaccine became available. I wanted that vaccine. I mean, I really wanted that vaccine.

I followed every communication from Philadelphia’s Health Department. I signed up for lists, which evoked a message-in-a bottle feeling. “Don’t call us. We’ll call you,” the websites said. They didn’t call.

My sister Alethia and I felt like we got lucky when the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium (BDCC) announced a vaccination event at the Liacouras Center. Our ZIP code was one of those included on the list, and our friend Gabrielle volunteered to drive from Germantown to the 24-hour vaxathon in North Philadelphia.

The event started at noon on Friday, and we heard about lines around the block. We thought arriving shortly before 4 a.m. Saturday morning would shorten our waiting time. Wrong! There were thousands of other folks, mostly Black, mostly just as anxious to get protection from the coronavirus. The long wait turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me, because, in my early morning grogginess, I’d forgotten my ID. Gabrielle and I went back to my house to retrieve it, leaving Alethia to hold our place. In the 45 minutes we were gone, she moved up a whole quarter-block.

Back in line, it was below freezing, and still dark. I had dressed warmly, SEPTA veteran that I am. I was warm. Except for my hands and feet, which, despite lined boots and two pairs of gloves, were hurting with cold.

It is difficult to convey how monotonous and excruciating the wait was. There was no place to use a bathroom. There were inadequate trash receptacles and litter strewn around. Yet the people in line were patient and cheerful. At one point, an energetic group of folks in Eagles regalia came around with complimentary hot coffee. Did I mention there were no bathrooms?

At 9 o’clock, after five hours in line, Alethia, Gabrielle and I made our way inside the Liacouras Center. The bathrooms were — to put it mildly — a disaster. We used them anyway.

But the BDCC setup was a model of efficiency. There were two rooms filled with 6-foot tables. At one end of each table was an administrative volunteer to read you your rights and to take your information. At the other end was a health care volunteer with a hypodermic needle.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Short jab. Band-aid. Take your vaccination card.

During the mandatory 15-minute observation period afterwards, I thought about how brilliantly BDCC had stepped up. I thought about how completely Philadelphia’s Health Department had messed up. I thought about how abandoned I felt by the city. I thought about the successes that are possible when you let Black people lead. I tried to catch a glimpse of Dr. Ala Stanford, the founder of the BDCC, over whom I’ve been fangirling since last spring.

My left arm was pretty sore. Other than that, I didn’t have any side effects. That night I fell sleepily into a very early slumber. It might have been rising at 3 a.m. It might have been the two glasses of dry Riesling. It might have been that after a year of COVID anxiety, I finally felt some relief.