Dear Neighbor,

It’s common to look back on the past 12 months and celebrate the man of the year (sometimes, rarely, a woman) or the most powerful, beautiful and mighty. This is not that list.

These are 11 must-know Covid-19 heroes from our view in the Epicenter, aka the Goated List. Many of these individuals are folks and institutions we worked with over the last year on vaccine outreach — and we’d be honored to continue to do so. None asked to be on this list and didn’t know of their inclusion until we published. It’s hardly exhaustive; tell us who we missed at

Elmhurst Hospital (and its diaspora across NYC Health & Hospitals Corp.)

We cannot count all the ways Elmhurst Hospital has SHOWED UP for Queens and communities across the city (the world, really). The ethos is built into its mission (a New Yorker profile on Elmhurst headlined “Every Disease on Earth” is a must-read), which only strengthened in the pandemic. One example: When we discovered we needed more masks and sanitizers at our site in Queens Village, folks at the hospital sent thousands of each to Epicenter’s storage (aka Mitra’s garage in Jackson Heights). Beyond the donation, we think it’s remarkable how Elmhurst, time and time again, looks so far beyond its borders to uplift communities in the most collective, inclusive sense. 

We can’t name names because we don’t want to get them in trouble but the diaspora of Elmhurst Hospital across HHC operates with the same spirit of generosity. They helped navigate bureaucracy to secure vaccine vans, more tests, expedited results, waivers, basically all the things that felt so unnecessarily hard this year. We’re so grateful. 

Photo: NYC Health + Hospitals / @nychealthsystem

Elmhurst Hospital across HHC operates with the same spirit of generosity. They helped navigate bureaucracy to secure vaccine vans, more tests, expedited results, waivers, basically all the things that felt so unnecessarily hard this year. We’re so grateful. 

Dr. Ala Stanford, Philadelphia 

You might wonder how a doctor from Philly makes this list but so much of our work in centering Black communities and how to communicate about Covid-19 is inspired by Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors Consortium. We cited her in our initial February piece, when our vaccine efforts had helped dozens. Asked what it would take for Black Americans to embrace a vaccine, she said: 

I believe it will take trusted leaders to impart the safety, the efficacy, and the importance. It won’t be your president, your surgeon general, your secretary of health because the messages have been so mixed from the beginning.

I personally think it’s going to take me, or someone like me, receiving the vaccine live and following me… to see how I’m doing and measuring my antibody response. For some, that still won’t be enough. There are lots of folks that are like, ‘No, I’ll just wear a mask and stay socially isolated.’ So, we have our work cut out for us.

A year later, her advice rings true. Stanford is probably the best known Covid-19 hero on this list; she’s been on “Good Morning America,” and just landed a book deal. We’re grateful that her good work guided us from the very beginning. 

Harlem Gunness, far right. Photo collage: St. John’s University /

Harlem Gunness

You can thank Harlem Gunness for our monthly dispatches chronicling conditions on the ground when it comes to vaccine distribution. We met Gunness through a study he pioneered on Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst during the pandemic. These findings helped us paint a much more real picture of how Covid-19 was playing out across hard-hit areas; concepts like quarantine and social distancing are impossible for many, and basics like soap, masks and sanitizers are in short supply. 

After hearing about Epicenter’s efforts, Gunness encouraged us to summarize our findings for broader dissemination on a regular basis. That encouragement has turned into biweekly check-ins with Gunness and his contacts throughout the city and field of public-health, which lead to comparisons of what’s working and what’s still needed. So many roads of our ability to respond, pivot or make a difference lead back to him. 


Doctors across this network actually look like the New York City they serve, and we believe that has made all the difference. Over the last year, as people turned to us seeking medical experts who spoke their languages and understood their communities, Somos’ vast network was there time and time again. They held vaccine clinics in churches and gurudwaras, and understood a lot of people needing help are not on the internet. 

Catalina Cruz. Photo courtesy of her office / @catalinacruzny

Assembly member Catalina Cruz

Here at Epicenter, we’re actively redefining what our relationship with elected officials can be. While we hold them accountable and call out inefficiencies regularly, we need them in order to serve our communities. Over the past year, as we received complaints about undocumented New Yorkers being asked for ID at vaccine sites, we reached out to many politicians. Over and over, Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz and her staff helped ensure our neighbors got their vaccines at alternative sites, no questions asked. I asked Cruz about this when we ran into each other on the 34th Avenue Open Street in Jackson Heights. “A lot of electeds don’t care about the undocumented because they can’t vote,” she said. “I don’t want to be that person.”

She knows what she’s talking about. Cruz came to the U.S. at the age of 9, gained legal status through marriage, and is the first former “Dreamer” in the N.Y. Assembly.

Las Caza Vacunas. Photo: Marc Stern / URL Media partner palabra.

The vaccine hunters

We are so grateful to have been part of a network of vaccine helpers around the city, state and country. We would meet via Zoom and swap tips, stories and, importantly, ideas for Things That Work. Special thanks to the following: 

Las Caza Vacunas

Greenburgh Covid Angels


And our two partners in Queens Village: 


TBN24 (a quick note on the power of this Bangladeshi livestream and cable channel; it set up hotlines to help audiences navigate the pandemic and anchor Habib Rahman has personally accompanied members of the community looking for unemployment or other benefits.)

Madhavi Sunder. Photo: IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law /

Madhavi Sunder, Georgetown Law Center

We have been warning of “vaccine apartheid” for a while. That’s only because Madhavi Sunder of Georgetown Law Center has been sounding the alarm on this since the beginning of the pandemic. She has made it clear there is no end to Covid-19 until the world acts in tandem, patents and manufacturing technology are shared and transferred. U.S. taxpayers have the right to demand Moderna, at the very least, is shared with the rest of the world due to its origins in government funding and its moniker as “the people’s vaccine.” 

The Omicron variant which is bringing countries to their knees – all at once – is proof of Sunder’s prescience. With our roots in Queens and so many in our community entering the third or more year of not traveling to their countries of origin or seeing family, we’re grateful for Sunder’s advocacy of our neighbors across the world and the case to keep them safe against a virus that has no borders. 

Photo courtesy of Bed-Stuy Strong / @bedstuystrong

Mutual-aid networks, all of them

Every week, Epicenter books dozens of folks who need to criss-cross the city to get their vaccines and they can do so not hindered by subway, bus or work schedules. That’s thanks to mutual-aid networks that set up arrangements with Lyft (Bed-Stuy Strong) and Uber (Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid). We’ve turned to these groups when neighbors need deeper help, or when we were struggling to scale our own efforts (and needed advice about coordinating from Google Docs, Excel or Airtable). Mutual-aid networks have become lifelines for neighborhoods in the pandemic. In another example, we worked with the COVID Care Neighbor Network (CCNN), which helps Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and Woodside, to help get victims of a fire on 89th Street vaccinated. Shortly after, we received another list of needs (a delivery worker lost his bicycle in the fire; someone else needed MetroCards) and within hours, our volunteers and theirs had connected to fulfill them all. 

Vaccine Twitter

Huge Ma. Photo: @turbovax

I confess to having mixed feelings about all the opining about vaccines from armchairs and laptops and iPhones. There’s no denying, though, that as organizations like ours try to serve a population not on the internet, the internet is invaluable to link all of us to services. We’d like to single out a few folks who’ve been especially great on Twitter in sharing ideas and resources:

Huge Ma (whom you all know and love as TurboVax): Now running for state Assembly, his Twitter feed alerting all of us to open vaccine appointments in New York City proved invaluable. As one of our volunteers said after writing code to do something similar: “Beating TurboVax’s speed was a sign of really making it!” 

Mark D. Levine: We thank the incoming Manhattan Borough President for sharing our volunteer opportunities with the world (we had 200+ volunteers at peak) and always including Queens in his roundups of where to get tested and vaccinated. His info is verified, speedy and, importantly, in plainspeak that is accessible and rooted in serving our communities. 

Jorge Caballero: We’ve turned to this data-driven doctor often to gauge risk and contextualize information. Like us, he was early and consistent on the messaging that turning the unvaccinated into political pawns was a waste of time and we needed to focus on improved access. 

nycshotslots: This crowd-sourced effort to direct people to the best vaccine sites referred thousands of New Yorkers to us and continues to loop us into city resources and do-gooders. 

St. Mark’s Church, Jackson Heights. Photo: Nitin Mukul / Epicenter NYC

The houses of worship

Last week, we profiled religious leaders and how they’re getting through the pandemic. Say a little prayer for those praying big for us. We’ve worked with the following houses of worship to get their congregations vaccinated or spread awareness and information: 

SS Joachim and Anne in Queens Village

St. Mark’s Epicopal Church in Jackson Heights
New York Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church in Harlem

Episcopal Church of Grace and Resurrection in East Elmhurst

Masjid Al Koaba Islamic Center in South Jamaica

Religious institutions remain among the most dependable fixtures in the lives of their communities. Food pantries to after school tutoring to pop-up vaccine sites, we are so grateful for how often they fill in some very real gaps right now. To us, they are equally or more important as a Twitter or Facebook in getting both services and information out.  

Sree Bhagavan, Abigail Farnum, Lorna Singh, and Sharon Pitter. Photo: Epicenter NYC

Epicenter volunteers

Finally, we call out the group who gave their time and hearts to Epicenter this year: Our volunteers. Some of them have come on and joined our staff, thanks to a city grant (the Fund for Public Health in NYC and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene) to help Queens Village get vaccinated. We wrote about what motivated them here and said: “The secret of our sudden scale and efficiency are our volunteers, whose love of New York City and sense of purpose is inspiring.”

Photos courtesy of Katherine Tam (left) and Adriana Proano (right)

I single out four folks: Bifen Xu, Katherine Tam, Sree Bhagavan and Adriana Proano, all of whom have worked tirelessly across Queens to help move vaccination rates in the right direction. I wanted to suspend publishing and take the week between Christmas and New Year’s off but it is this team that looked at our current crisis and said we had to keep making a difference. They are the very best of New York City, and the greatest of all time.

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