Thomas McCoy pulled his white Acura into a parking space at Central Pharmacy on North Duke Street in Durham Saturday to receive his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

McCoy, who is Black, is well aware that some in the Black community are dead set against getting the COVID vaccine.

“People are scared because of what happened years ago when they experimented on us,” McCoy, a 73-year-old lifelong Durham resident, told the INDY. “That’s still on their mind.”

Those memories include the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, North Carolina’s early 20th-century eugenics program that sterilized thousands of Black women, and the tragic story of enslaved women subjected to brutal research often without anesthesia by James Marion Sims, considered the father of modern gynecology.

Those memories hum in the background as Durham officials express concern over vaccination rates among people of color that are lagging behind vaccination rates among whites.

On Thursday, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel shared comparative vaccination data with members of the city and county’s COVID-19 Recovery and Renewal Task Force.

In Durham County, the data showed that 44 percent of whites, who account for about half of the population, had been partially vaccinated and 33 percent were fully vaccinated.

By comparison, only 22 percent of African Americans, who account for 38 percent of the population, had been partially vaccinated, and only 17 percent were fully vaccinated.

Among Latinx residents, who make up about 14 percent of the population, 17 percent had been partially vaccinated, with only eight percent fully vaccinated.

“Latinx people are even more underserved at this point than African Americans in Durham,” Schewel told the INDY.

For local officials, addressing inequity is a top priority.

“Personally, this is very concerning to me,” Wendy Jacobs, vice chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, told the INDY about the vaccine inequities. “This needs to be our number one priority right now—addressing this equity issue. We need to look at best practices all over the country. We need to do every single thing we can.”

Schewel agreed with Jacobs.

“We have to get this done,” Schewel said.

Last Thursday, the mayor issued a call to action on vaccine equity in an email sent to city and county officials, grassroots vaccine providers, public health officials, and others.

“Despite the good efforts of so many people and institutions, we are not where we need to be,” Schewel wrote in the email, which he shared with the INDY.

“Our Black and Brown communities are significantly underrepresented in the vaccine numbers, as you all know well. We cannot accept this.”

“We know what we need,” the mayor later explained in an email to the INDY, “community outreach workers, trusted messengers, enough vaccination staff (there is a shortage), and—above all—distribution of vaccine doses to those vaccine providers who are serving people of color.”

By late last week, there were 54 different vaccine locations throughout the county, which included grocery stores, pop-up events, and pharmacies along with sites in traditionally Black neighborhoods, such as North Carolina Central University, Lincoln Community Health Center, and churches. 

Jerome Washington, pastor at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in the southern shadow of downtown, was one of about 20 pastors who last spring announced that their churches would remain closed for Sunday worship services to protect their congregations from the novel coronavirus.

When the vaccines became available, Washington reopened the sanctuary’s doors to serve as an immunization site.

“We have worked very hard to get to our people,” Washington told the INDY. “We have had two different sessions, with 200 people [receiving vaccines] each time.”

Although chain pharmacies have garnered a lot of attention during the vaccine rollout, independent outlets have played a key role, too. They credit the county’s department of public health and state health officials who have provided the vaccines to every independent pharmacy that wants to immunize its patrons.

Vip Patel, owner and manager of Gurley’s Pharmacy in downtown Durham, says the county’s department of public health “has done a fantastic job.”

“Without them, this community would be devastated,” he says.

Michael Verble, pharmacy manager at Central Pharmacy, says about 25 percent of the pharmacy’s customers are African American, and he says a “fairly high” percentage of those patrons have received their first dose of the vaccine.

“There’s a lot of trust built up over the years,” Verble says. “We’ve been here since 1981.”

Patel says the majority of customers he serves are African American, adding that “there’s a sense among some of the patients that they don’t trust the vaccine.”

Patel says while most of the pharmacy’s patrons who are 65 or older have already received the vaccine, the problem lies with African American patients who are under the age of 65 with underlying conditions.

The issue often isn’t vaccine hesitancy, he says. It’s a function of poverty with patients whose medical condition has left them homebound; others are without transportation, or worse, homeless.

“It’s not just one thing,” explains Patel, who adds that the pharmacy is working with caregivers who will travel to patients’ homes to administer the vaccines. Gurley’s is also trying to vaccinate the city’s homeless by partnering with local members of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, which travel to communities to distribute Naloxone and Narcan to help opioid addicts reverse the effects of an overdose.

Patel’s willingness to think outside the box to administer more vaccines to Black and Brown residents is in concert with Schewel’s call for a new approach.

“What we have done so far has not created the equity that we need, so we have to do some different things,” Schewel told the task force.

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to

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