Photo by Epicenter-NYC

By S. Mitra Kalita 

There’s demand for vaccines again. That’s the good news. The surge is thanks to boosters, mandates and, literally, the fear of death (and Delta). 

The bad news: We still haven’t addressed conditions that made it so hard for some communities to get shots in the first place. 

That’s when they turn to Epicenter, so we’re back to helping neighbors who don’t have cell phones, internet connectivity, primary care doctors, legal status, time off from work, English skills, a grasp of the science behind vaccines, patience to deal with chain-pharmacy-website registrations, among other challenges. 

Based on the last few months of these requests and our work on the ground in undervaccinated Queens Village, we’re seeing a handful of trends. We share them below, along with some possible solutions.

Change is possible and should be celebrated. 

We (along with TBN24 and ClearHealthCosts) recently received a vaccine-equity grant from the Fund for Public Health in NYC and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to focus on Queens Village, one of the least vaccinated zip codes in the borough. When we started in August, only 52% of the zip code had gotten one shot, compared to the city’s 59%; a few weeks ago, that grew to 56% and the city had soared to 69%. As I write this, Queens Village is at nearly 60%, with New York City at 72%. 

If it feels like incremental change, it is. But what we’ve learned on the ground over the last few months is to embrace and celebrate those little shifts. In a series of four vaccine pop-ups we were able to secure, thanks to New York City Test & Trace, we got more than 250 people their shots. We set up across from Wayanda Park and saw a steady stream of people every single time. This past rainy Sunday, the start of our next series of our pop-ups where we offer Covid testing and freebies like vaccine-cardholders and bags and sanitizers, we got more than 50 shots in arms. It’s been remarkable. For a report from the ground up, check out this blog post. Excerpt: “Speaking Haitian Creole and Spanish here in this zip code helps tremendously. The head nurse in the van one day was from this community. She knew quite a few people who came to get their vaccines. It was so nice to see them being totally surprised and hugging. Familiar location, familiar faces and language are important.” 

We rely too much on the internet to reach people not on the internet. 

When we started getting a lay of the land in Queens Village, we, of course, wondered just how and where people could get vaccinated. We only found two places, a Rite-Aid and a Walgreens. Neither offered walk-in shots, and appointments had to be booked online. This was a red flag to us because Epicenter’s entire vaccine operation of the late winter and early spring consisted of volunteers serving as the interface for people who wanted shots but were baffled by the byzantine system of booking online. Could this still be happening though? 

The answer is yes.

Undervaccinated areas are often barometers of disconnect.

We hate the term news desert because it negates the work of so many outlets covering the area (Queens Chronicle, we see you!). Also this is New York City, the media capital of the world.  

But the question is whether news and information is optimized for intended audiences. In our experience, the folks who need the most help booking vaccines work two or three jobs and do not have the surplus time or energy to scroll through websites or social-media feeds. In our search for public gathering spots that could help us disseminate information, we thought about grocery stores and transit hubs. Not surprisingly, the area doesn’t have a lot of those either. 

We found the park, which sits across the street from a church, to be the closest to a hub—of cultures, ages, languages—we could find. Notably, churches both in this zip code and in nearby Jamaica and Hollis play an outsized role in community building. We worked with them to publicize our vaccine pop-ups. 

We need to focus on getting whites vaccinated, too. 

White people, come get your boy! The data now show that white New Yorkers hold the distinction of being the second-largest racial group among the unvaccinated (54% of whites have received one dose, 48% of Black residents, 83% Asian and 63% Hispanic). 

Nationally, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, white people accounted for the largest share (60%) of people who are unvaccinated, but Black and Hispanic people are less likely to have received a vaccine. 

We fear that by politicizing the unvaccinated and dismissing all of them as Trump voters, we are missing out on an opportunity to get shots in arms of more New Yorkers. In the meantime, efforts to work with Black and Brown media and community organizations are helping but it also sets up a dangerous framework … of us as the problem. 

Photo by Epicenter-NYC

The $100 incentive really matters.

Epicenter gets calls several times a week from folks saying they got the shot but not the $100. They get very upset. There’s a few reasons for this — the only place to get the $100 is if you get the shot done at a city site and it is your first dose. 

One of the reasons we think our van in Queens Village has been so successful is because it is a city site and thus offers the incentive. Sometimes, though, the city does not have a record of the individual getting vaccinated. We are also hearing from folks who borrow cell phones or are staying with friends so the transient/migrant populations are another challenge here (understandably for the city to track down to provide the code or debit card for the $100). After raising this issue to city officials, Epicenter was given the following info for people trying to track down their $100. The Citywide Immunization Registry can be reached at 347-396-2400 or (UPDATE: Epicenter recently inquired and was told: “For requests about vaccines incentives, direct the requester to call (877) VAX-4NYC (877-829-4692) or email”)

We can attest that queries sent there have gotten responses! 

Fertility, the immunocompromised and boosters, oh my. The messaging has been a mess. 

We have set out to take vaccine naysayers’ questions and answer them, through our sites and social media. Excerpts of these stories live on flyers and are disseminated among our staff and volunteers so they are armed with good information. Three areas keep coming up. 

Do I qualify for a booster? Read here

I want to get pregnant or am worried about the vaccine’s effect on my fertility. Read here

I am immunocompromised and my doctor said I can skip the vaccine. Read here

We are also trying to work on a story to address the other thing we keep hearing: “I have been working for two years now during this crisis. I haven’t gotten Covid yet.” 

We also are no longer afraid to use three little words that we should have gotten more comfortable with earlier: “We don’t know.” Followed by… “Things are constantly changing. But this is what we do know…”

The strategy going forward really needs to be Testing+Masking+Vaccines.

Our most recent pop-up on Sunday and the days going forward (look for us at Sts. Anne & Joachim Parish throughout October: Oct. 13, 17, 20, 24, 27 and 31) include vaccines and Covid-19 testing. We believe testing is one way to keep the unvaccinated engaged with the health system and to initiate conversations on why they are not vaxxed, if there are any questions we can answer and if there’s anything they need. We suggest giving doctors, health-care workers and community groups scripts on how to have these talks. 

We also have been handing out free hand sanitizer, masks and insulated food bags with websites and phone numbers for people to reach out if and when they decide to get their shot. We realize the process of getting someone vaccinated might require multiple touchpoints and interactions. Thankfully, we also know that we often do get through. And that has made all the difference. 

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

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