Photo: Alex Mecl

By S. Mitra Kalita, Elena Tate and Hella Winston


The race is on. By July 4, President Biden wants 160 million American adults fully vaccinated.

Epicenter has spent the last four months booking our neighbors for their shots, and it feels like the time is right to pivot from observations to more overt recommendations. Most of what we’ve written on vaccines (in February, March, early April and then late April) still rings true, even as eligibility expands and changes. These ideas originated in New York City, but can really apply anywhere: 

Eliminate residency and documentation requirements. 

The disdainful treatment of certain populations in the early days of the vaccine rollout remains an obstacle. Many sites and pharmacies asked for extensive documentation and turned away people for lack of ID or insurance. Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he wants to offer jabs to tourists outside popular attractions, which the state has approved. It’s a great idea, but the same warm and welcoming language should be used for the city’s migrant and undocumented populations, who do just as much to make our economy run. There’s some damage to undo. 

Language matters: With the recent change eliminating New York State residency, the vaccine is now officially available to any “U.S. resident.” However, this can be confusing as it could imply being a legal permanent resident (i.e. a “greencard” holder) is necessary, when in fact people can get vaccinated regardless of immigration status. 

A woman receives a Covid-19 vaccine at Five Star Pharmacy in Crown Heights, a pop-up hosted with Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid. The pharmacy has been owned and operated by Haitian immigrants, Edwige and Serge Dorime, for more than 20 years. Photo: Sean Waltrous
Take vaccines into communities; favor mobile units over megasites. 

The population who will travel for a vaccine has likely peaked. It’s time to decentralize the process. Mobile units should focus on areas with: 

  • High foot traffic, including transportation hubs, such as the Roosevelt Avenue subway station in Jackson Heights or the Atlantic Avenue station in Brooklyn. (People may not travel for the vaccine, but still need to travel to work)
  • Lower rates of vaccination
  • Higher rates of Covid-19
  • Large numbers of restaurant workers
  • Less subway connectivity
  • Sites already engaging in testing (that’s the sign: Covid-19 tests AND vaccines here)
  • Programs such as Open Streets or Greenmarkets

The units should: 

  • Stay for a minimum of three days; word of mouth is how many communities spread news of their existence
  • Open early, close late; extend hours for those who don’t have 9 to 5 jobs
  • Display adequate signage saying vaccines are FREE, do not require appointments nor insurance nor documentation nor immigration status
  • Have translators and outreach workers who the spread word to nearby homes and businesses
  • Have materials and dedicated personnel on hand to answer questions about the particular vaccine offered and how it works. People have a lot of questions about the science and enabling them to get answers easily increases the likelihood they will consider getting vaccinated.

In good news, the mobile unit in Jackson Heights last week was so successful that it’s back until Tuesday (May 11), and set up at Diversity Plaza.

Work with primary-care doctors and pediatricians.
A man receives his vaccination at the Five Star Pharmacy pop-up. Photo: Sean Waltrous

Send supply to all doctors and require them to inform their patients via phone, text message and email. Doctors can answer questions regarding side effects, fears or special situations. Today, the Pfizer vaccine received approval for 12- to 15 year olds; a plan of communication with pediatricians, schools and other youth programs must follow. 

Further, doctors’ offices and pharmacists, from downtown Manhattan to the Upper West Side, Woodside to Forest Hills, are contacting us daily with their extra doses. Can we create hubs where those doses can be transported and offered to populations at their convenience? 

UNDERSTAND that not everyone has a doctor. 

Here in the Epicenter (Corona, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst), a study by St. John’s University public-health professor Harlem Gunness found that 42% of Latinos did not have a primary-care doctor. Even the insured might visit urgent care or managed-care facilities but do not have the intimate relationship that seems to be the bedrock of outreach efforts. 

The vaccine rollout is a great opportunity to make New Yorkers aware of how they and their families can access health care. We can’t assume everyone has a family doctor that is loved and trusted. 

Form partnerships with churches, mosques, synagogues, unions and other community groups. 

We have mentioned our success with getting entire churches vaccinated — but it never starts at that scale. Rather, a pair of cousins leads to another set of friends which leads to more and more… This network effect can be scaled up if the government’s efforts target the right individuals and right organizations. In a recent brainstorming session we held of Epicenter volunteers, many mentioned reaching out to unions and other trade groups as a successful tactic. Also, organizations that are already engaged in on-the-ground outreach (such as the Census or those that register voters, for example) might be particularly well suited to help get information into the community as they tend to have email and phone lists as well as experience going door-to-door and finding translators. 

The Ephesus Church in Harlem recently reached out to us at Epicenter and asked if we could share some volunteers to talk about our work over the last few months and answer questions. Tune in next week: 

Interestingly, church elder Crystal Ward told us that they get thousands of views on church TV, much greater reach than the church services themselves. This seems to be a valuable platform especially as so many churches have shifted to virtual service. 

Homebound seniors are still waiting. 

We urgently need ways to communicate with seniors not on the internet and who might have reached out weeks ago to schedule a homebound visit — and are still waiting. 

At Epicenter, we have begun matchmaking from our lists of people seeking help and nonprofits offering service to the homebound. We have also tried to spread the word through Meals on Wheels and God’s Love We Deliver, which deliver food and support to seniors, and suspect city agencies have way more levers at their disposal to reach these vulnerable populations. What has worked best for us: Old fashioned-phone calls from Epicenter’s friendliest volunteers assuring the seniors they are there to help. 

Make getting the second dose easy. 

Summer is just weeks away. As much as we want people to still follow social distancing and other pandemic protocols in between doses, restaurants and travel, summer camps and offices are opening up. Recent data indicate that many Americans are outright skipping their second dose, partly because of scheduling and also fears of side effects. Because of this, we must get creative on how to incentivize the second dose, such as: 

  • Allowing people to switch locations between the first and second dose
  • Do as much outreach to encourage people to keep appointments for the second dose as we do on the first, which could include communicating with people in the days and weeks after their first dose to check in about side effects and answer questions. The Centers for Disease Control’s V-Safe Health Checker does this via text message and people should be encouraged to sign up for it. 
  • Consider whether people can get the second dose in another state, even another country (some states do allow this already). 
Focus on retail, restaurant and other high-contact, public-facing industries.

A few weeks ago, during our table outreach at Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, our volunteers were shocked: by our rough calculations, 70% of workers in nearby restaurants had not gotten vaccines. That prompted us to go into Google Maps to identify businesses that are located near vaccine sites to let them know a shot was literally steps away. One volunteer got the entire staff at a pizzeria vaccinated with this outreach. 

Epicenter-NYC did outreach in multiple languages at the table, and had volunteers from the Jackson Heights Science Communication Initiative on hand. Photo: Nitin Mukul

This needs to become standard for new vaccine sites or mobile units entering a neighborhood. Announce your presence. Make friends. Establish trust. Give your new neighbors vaccines. 

There are influencers beyond Kim Kardashian. 

At the same table event, we hired a Nepali-Tibetan translator to help us with outreach. She went on Facebook Live and Instagram Stories multiple times throughout her shift to let followers know she was with Epicenter helping people get booked for vaccines. By the end of the day, dozens of Nepalese and Tibetans had stopped by, thanks to her. 

Epicenter is now trying to find the equivalent “influencers” in other communities. They are trusted voices who can truly effect change. The city could engage such people to do the same kind of social media outreach at its mobile sites. They might include owners and workers at popular local businesses who have a social media following. Know any? Let us know by emailing us at (We pay!) 

We need more commercials and advertising. 

We’re not just saying this because we’re a media company that accepts advertising. There still are not enough commercials devoted to the vaccine. We need multiple formats, multiple languages, multiple points of entry. What is mRNA? How did they develop these vaccines so quickly? How can you get one? Where can you get one? Is it safe for my kid? These are the questions we can preemptively answer through media and marketing. 

Free stuff helps. 

Fund gift cards or vouchers to be used at local businesses or cultural institutions for everyone getting vaccinated. This could incentivize people to get the vaccine and help bring new money and brands into communities. 

Right now, New Jersey is offering anyone who gets their first vaccine dose this month a free beer if they take their vaccination card to a participating brewery. N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo just announced free week-long MetroCards to folks who get the vaccine in a program in the subway stations. 

Partner, and pay community organizations for their expertise. 

The federal government’s focus last week on community efforts is great news—but it’s long overdue. Some of us, especially in communities of color, are resentful that it’s taken so long because we have been doing precisely this work for months. 

Some organizations (there are many beyond Epicenter, but we can only speak for ourselves) have been serving our communities on the backs of volunteers, many of whom are also unemployed or underemployed. In my case (Mitra), it felt unconscionable to set up a media network that centers Black and Brown people, but does not support our neighbors in this literal life-and-death situation. 

Every week, we receive dozens of overtures from people asking for further insights. That takes up time, often without a clear path to further uplift our communities. At times, grants in this space seem more devoted to debunking misinformation versus providing accurate information and service for people to get their shots. Others want to study the problem, which is laudable, but should be paired with the urgent, immediate action needed to get shots in arms. Advertising, as mentioned earlier, could go a long way, but campaigns here began with mainstream media, which is not where our communities turn to for news, information or service. 

Beyond media, we hope the next phases of the rollout extend funding to local, community-based organizations, meaningful door-to-door outreach and training to help answer questions on matters from side effects to science. 

Remember, the vaccinated are our best ambassadors. 
Photo: Sean Waltrous

We have seen time and time again that the best inspiration for someone to get a vaccine is knowing a friend or family member who just got one. We want to share these common, positive stories, but that is only possible if we enable getting a vaccine to be common and positive. That means removing as many obstacles as possible that might still be standing in the public’s way. 

Know someone who needs a vaccine still? Send them our way! They can fill out this form or call us at 917-818-2690. If you like what you’ve been reading and want to support our work, make a donation and/or subscribe to our newsletter

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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