Tina Burke speaks with residents of Far Rockaway. Photo courtesy of Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center

Far Rockaway remains one of New York City’s least vaccinated populations, with only 44.6% of people fully vaccinated. Far Rockaway is made up of mostly Black and Brown families who don’t fit into the stereotypical anti-vaxxer persona. As we have previously reported, most of the time communities like these remain unvaccinated not because they are hostile toward vaccination but because they may not have access to both correct information about the safety of the vaccine and the actual vaccine itself. It takes striking up a conversation with the unvaccinated, and truly understanding their concerns to even begin convincing them to get vaccinated. 

Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado spoke with three healthcare workers from the Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center who are doing just that. They have been educating and providing vaccine outreach to the people of Far Rockaway, tirelessly addressing their fears by answering their questions. Through their work we are able to learn how we can be good vaccine advocates in our own communities.

Know your community

In order to help your community you have to understand what kind of people they are. Dr. Miriam Vega, CEO of the Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center, knows misinformation is one of the biggest reasons affecting the unvaccinated population of Far Rockaway, and a big reason for that, is not just fake news and videos but where the unvaccinated are located. 

Dr. Miriam Vega. Photo courtesy of Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center

“Many individuals don’t leave the peninsula. They live and work and play there. And whenever ideas get settled there, they tend to stay there, so it’s hard to sometimes counter the misinformation that’s there because it gets rooted in the community because of lack of exposure to other sources of information,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important when our teams that you noted go out into the community to counter the misinformation that exists out there to talk to people. And it’s very difficult because it’s not just one conversation. Sometimes it takes up to 12 conversations to change someone’s mind and to get them to the point where they’re even willing to entertain getting the vaccine.”

Tina Burke, senior care coordinator at the health center agrees, and notes that Far Rockaway’s biggest issue is accessibility, “We don’t have that many health facilities, we don’t have many health supermarkets, we don’t have access to a lot of things,” she said, “So people in this neighborhood feel like they are, they’re trapped. They don’t have enough services, they don’t have access to services. So they tend to stick with what they know or what they see.”

Knowing that this isn’t a community where people will have time to look at medical journals or travel far to get to the doctor,  the team at the health center decided that the best way to educate the people of Far Rockaway is by going directly to them and talking directly to them.

Meet your community where they are

One of the ways these women were able to be successful in getting a hesitant community vaccinated is by meeting people where they are. Sometimes people don’t want to hear from medical professionals or news outlets that they may not always trust, sometimes people want to hear information from people they know and trust. 

Burke said their outreach program understood this well. They thought about spaces where the people of Far Rockaway congregate, their conclusion: bodegas and hair salons. 

“The man or woman at the bodega sees these faces every day. This is where they congregate. This is where they get a lot of the information. So as far as what’s happening in the neighborhoods, so we were targeting local bodegas in the community, the barber shops, the beauty salon, anywhere people gather and they usually get their information from that population and to kind of disperse some of the myths, some of the the misinformation and the miseducation around Covid-19 itself and Covid-19 vaccination as well,” she said, “[Far Rockaway] tends to adhere to communities, norms and cultural aspects. So we had to look at it through different lenses and target in that manner.”

“They need more information that is comprehensible, so we need to take into account health literacy of the population, and we need to take into account some of the values and being culturally responsive, making sure we have materials in different languages and address the values of the community,” said Dr. Vega.

Yura Mota-Rodriguez is a primary care HIV prevention coordinator for the health center, and also went out into the community to do outreach for the vaccine. She noticed that people were more quick to respond to those who looked and spoke like them. 

“I am Dominican. I speak Spanish, so it was different for them to be hearing from someone who spoke their own language, that shared their own experience and that could tell them in their own language whether this vaccine was going to be good or bad,” she said. 

It is often difficult for communities of color to trust the white-dominated medical field, but by hearing from professionals  who look like them or simply hearing from people they can relate to, the unvaccinated become a little more open to getting their shot. 

“People in general are more quick to buy into what someone [says based on what] they look like, someone who looks like them. ‘Well, if you did it and you’re Black, I’m going to be alright,’ you know what I mean?” said Burke.

Equip yourself with the correct information

The health center also had to equip themselves with the information that would be most beneficial to the community. They needed to provide the community with information that addressed people’s fears and answered their questions.

“The biggest consensus among most people was that the vaccine was a way for the government to track you. [It is a] huge misconception. ‘Oh, they’re going to be putting a chip in us.’ The other concern was how quickly the vaccine was developed. So individuals thought about how convenient it was for the government to have a vaccine so quickly for Covid-19, when there were other health diagnoses or medical concerns that had been around so long,” said Burke. 

Her method was to keep reminding people the objective of the vaccines: to reduce hospitalization and deaths. She said sometimes people will leave and bring their neighbors so that they too could hear the same information Burke and her team were providing.

Dr. Vega described going out to the community like a tennis match, “When you’re going out into the community and just going back and forth, you have to be willing to do that and you have to feel the passion to want to do it because you can feel so demoralized sometimes when you’re constantly being told ‘No,’ ” she said.

It may take a long time for people to finally get vaccinated, but Dr. Vega knows it is worth it. “You just keep the conversation going with them and try to, you know, if they’re not willing at that moment to get the vaccine, you ask them, ‘Hey, can we talk again? Here’s my business card. Do you want to talk a little bit more about this? Do you want to talk to a provider?’ And so you go back out into the community and often find those same people and you, you chip away at their resistance,” she said. 

Understand that there is always more to be done

Lastly, a good vaccine advocate knows there is still work to be done which opens the way for solutions. There are many things that are out of the control of the educators. Dr. Vega has noticed that sometimes what holds people back is not the lack of knowledge, but lack of time. 

“[There are] some people who are working a lot of jobs sometimes they say,’Look, it’s not that I’m anti-vaccine. I just don’t have the time to do it. My employer won’t give me the time off. I need to work. I need the money, and I’m just going to have hope and faith that I don’t get it,’ ” she said, “We need to be as resourceful as possible to try to meet their needs, their information needs and then resource needs to get to the places to get vaccinated, to get time off, to have help because sometimes they’re scared and they get vaccinated and they’re going to get sick. And then the next day, they won’t be able to work or or won’t be able to go to their jobs or won’t be able to take care of their kids. So there’s a lot of concerns, legitimate concerns there, and we shouldn’t belittle the unvaccinated. We should be willing to help them and understand their concerns and needs and try to meet them as best as possible.”

Perhaps one of the best ways you can help the unvaccinated is by simply listening to their reasons. This can help you get to the root of their decision, perhaps they are scared, perhaps they need to hear more people’s stories, perhaps they don’t have time. If someone works everyday perhaps a free baseball ticket won’t be as effective as paid time off. If someone is an non-English speaking immigrant perhaps hearing [Dr. Anthony] Fauci on television won’t be as effective as talking to people they know, trust and understand. Helping someone make the vaccination process easier is as simple as offering a car ride, helping to babysit or even sharing your story. We understand that finding easy-to-read medical information is also important. You can find more on easy-to-digest medical info as well as info in other languages here.

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