Photo: Nitin Mukul
Epicenter-NYC spent the entirety of 2021 connecting neighbors to news, information and to each other — and their Covid-19 vaccines. By now, we feel well-equipped to spell out what New York City needs to urgently solve for if we are ever to get to the other side of the pandemic.
The saddest part about most of what we are about to say is that we’ve said it before. Nonetheless, as we enter Pandemic Year III, this is our wish list based on what we’ve learned from staff, volunteers, and, most importantly, the communities we represent.
Masks + tests + vaccines. Repeat this message.
Nuanced messaging has hardly been a strength of the government (or media; who are we kidding?) but 2022 has to be our year to commit to the trifecta: masks, tests, vaccines. These are the three main pillars of our collective and individual Covid-19 response. Too much of the infrastructure around each is operating in silos, so New Yorkers are running from one line to get tested to another to get boosted, all while wearing a cloth mask that won’t protect them from the latest variant in some cases, even if they are already vaxxed and boosted.
A more coordinated approach would focus on equal parts information and services. We must retrain those tasked with delivery (example: the guy giving you your booster might hand you an N95 mask) to be more helpful and up-to-date on the latest guidance. Whatever happened to the government’s plan to mail 650 million face masks to ordinary citizens? Maybe that idea needs to be revisited.
Make testing easier and more ubiquitous.
The frustrations of finding at-home tests or waiting in long lines for PCR diagnostics and then days for results… It’s been quite the holiday season. And yet we have only begun to scratch the surface on making tests accessible. Just as with mandates, the public and private sector play critical roles; and yet, mandating tests and vaccines means nothing unless both are readily available.
Volunteer Luc Athayde-Rizzaro suggests: “The city needs to mail tests to people’s homes as opposed to making them pick it up in only one location per borough.”
In recent weeks, Epicenter has been doing outreach to the elderly, restaurants and other public-facing workers to ensure they are prioritized for tests. And we have been putting tests in the mail for those who cannot wait hours in line or navigate the systems to secure them more readily.
We have more data now. Let’s act on it.
We’ve written before about the need to disaggregate data within ethnic groups. Last week, N.Y. Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a law mandating state agencies collect more granular data on Asian and Pacific Islander populations. Covid-19 data as it relates to Asians tends to focus on their high vaccination rate, but deeper dives show disproportionate deaths among Chinese Americans and high hospitalization rates among South Asians, according to the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families.
Beyond ethnic and political lines, another overlooked data point are the high numbers of uninsured refusing the vaccine. We need more prominent signage on the types of vaccines being offered (Moderna vs J&J vs Pfizer) but perhaps with even bigger font, our messaging must scream: FREE. Some places still ask for insurance information and it seems time to revise the script to explain why and/or make clear that it’s not necessary. We’ve targeted the unvaccinated as a partisan group, and we’ve targeted vaccine hesitancy among Black and Brown New Yorkers. Should the uninsured be next?
Covid-19 guidance is constantly changing. We need new — and regular — ways to communicate those changes.
Unless you are on Twitter all day long, it’s impossible to keep up. One of the most effective platforms for Epicenter has been to stand up at the beginning or end of a church service and rattle off what’s changed, what that means for individuals and where to get help/services/information. We give out bags at food pantries and grocery stores with the words “Get vaccinated!” and list our phone number so people can call at their convenience. Lately, we’ve been brainstorming broader and better ways to cut through the confusion, whether it’s a daily five-minute update, a return to our weekly livestream or blasts via text message or phone calls. (Ideas on this? Want to partner? Ping us at firstname.lastname@example.org).
We’ve come a long way in partnership with mutual aids, neighbors helping neighbors, and other Covid-19 heroes (see our list of them). What’s needed next is more collaborative action and communication that does not center on social media or being “in the know” for distribution.
Keep schools open. But offer support and options.
The question of what to do with schools has been politically fraught, yet devoid of nuance as well. It’s not as simple as one group who wants to be in person and another remote. There are very real concerns depending on ages, grade levels, commute times, class sizes and population density, vaccine/booster qualifications, even whether windows can open and what ventilation looks like. This week’s pledge by Mayor Bill de Blasio and incoming Mayor Eric Adams to increase testing is a good sign (and the type of transitional leadership we wish we’d seen more of pre-Omicron). Says volunteer Ariel Gelrud: “If we find ourselves in a situation where schools are online but indoor dining and bars are still open, that’s a bad sign.”
There must be special focus on children under the age of five (think daycares and universal pre-K) and children between the ages 12 and 16, who do not yet qualify for boosters (it looks like that might change next week) and are more than six months out from their last dose of the vaccine. Prioritizing these “sitting duck” populations for testing, remote options, N95 mask distribution and education feels especially urgent.
Prioritize undervaccinated Zip codes for all services.
The areas of New York City that are undervaccinated, Queens Village and the Rockaways, for example, must be prioritized in 2022. If their populations were late to getting vaccines, perhaps due to working two or three jobs or not having access, it’s very likely their children ages five to 11 are in that same situation now.
These are also the neighborhoods that need more testing vans, at-home tests, face masks and hand sanitizers, boosters and information, preferably in multiple languages.
We hope they are front and center, as the city makes decisions on resources both in the upcoming year but also on a daily basis. Example: “We only have one mobile testing and vaccine van today. Shall we send it to the Upper West Side or Far Rockaway?” Do the right thing.
Stop relying on the internet to reach people not on the internet.
The Biden administration has announced a plan to buy 500 million Covid-19 rapid tests and mail them “to anybody who requests the kits via a new government website.”
Here we go again.
Even said websites need an overhaul. One volunteer writes: “We can book NYC HHC/Gotham Health vaccine appointments on their website but we can’t use that website to reschedule or cancel appointments. This means we have to call their hotline … In two instances, I was put on hold for about 30 minutes each.”
If this is going to be the only way to interact with government services, then we need to be offering more basic classes and training to New Yorkers on technology. Again, the struggle to reach people right now only highlights massive, entrenched pre-pandemic inequities.
Extend the $100 incentive for first-time vaccines and boosters. And offer them more widely.
Dec. 31 marks the expiration of a $100 incentive for any New Yorker getting a booster shot at a city-run site. The program has been wildly popular, and the city should extend it and include more sites, such as pharmacies and pop-ups, to qualify for the perk. Some could not wait in the long lines at city sites over the last week to get their shots. Others might still be recovering from Covid-19 and need additional time before they can get a booster. Still more are just getting the news and information that they even qualify for a booster and incentive (and once ages 12 to 15 are approved, we suspect they’ll want their $100 too!). Further, securing the $100 (issued on debit cards) has been confusing for many neighbors who end up calling us for assistance. We reiterate our guidance here: The Citywide Immunization Registry can be reached at 347-396-2400 or email@example.com. We can attest that queries sent there have gotten responses! An update as of Jan. 6, a response from that email says: “For requests about vaccines incentives, direct the requester to call (877) VAX-4NYC (877-829-4692) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.”
The inability for folks at testing and vaccine sites to communicate with those they are serving is a massive hindrance. Depending on the demographics of a neighborhood, we see an acute need for Spanish, Haitian Creole, Bengali, Chinese, among other languages. At our Queens Village site, we try to always have a Spanish speaker on hand, and have tapped into the nearby church for local community members who speak Haitian Creole to be there, too. But most places do not have this additional support.
Plan for uncertainty. Look out for each other. With grace.
Whenever NYC announces a new incentive or a new vaccine mandate, the city should also prepare to boost the number of city-run vaccine sites and doses available to meet the anticipated demand. We’re currently in a situation right now where neighbors have complained to us of having to wait in long lines, with or without appointments, to get their vaccine doses. We’ve had neighbors waiting anywhere from 1.5 to over 3 hours just to get their vaccine doses.
We need to communicate these glitches to people with grace and understanding so as not to shatter the little trust they have in institutions, from government to media to healthcare. Individual action has limits but makes all the difference right now. If you speak another language, especially Spanish, your translation skills are needed. If you are privileged enough to be able to buy tests, masks, sanitizers, think about dropping a few off at all the places that might not have such abundance.
Remember New York City is the world. Fight for all of us.
We are one of the most international, interconnected cities in the world. We have said time and time again this year that we cannot serve the people of Queens without serving the world. (That’s why we just put two at-home Covid tests in the mail to a neighbor’s aging parents out of state, and another to a set of grandparents who need negative tests for their health aides to resume work. Our view of community is global and expansive and inclusive.)
New York City, and the rest of the country, will only be protected from new waves and variants once global vaccination rates go up. New York should be at the forefront of putting pressure on the federal government and Big Pharma to increase support for patent sharing, tech transfer and all other efforts to increase global vaccination rates to fight Covid-19, which has shown its disrespect for borders time and time again.