Mayor Bill de Blasio tours a mass vaccination site at NYC Health + Hospitals/ Bathgate in the Bronx on Sunday, January 10, 2021. (304781)
Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

City health officials report that COVID-19 rates in the city are at their lowest in the last six months. However, positivity rates in the city remain over 3% in some areas of Central Brooklyn and Southeast Queens.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio reported that the percentage of people in the city testing positive for COVID-19 on a seven-day rolling average is 1.4%. Only 91 patients were in the hospital with COVID-19 on Tuesday, a far cry from the hundreds of patients flooding city hospitals this time last year.

Vaccine equity remains an issue in the city as advocates say New York’s predominantly Black neighborhoods remain under-vaccinated. According to the City’s Department of Health, COVID infections rates are well over the city’s average in zip codes where Black residents live in Central Brooklyn and Queens.

Neighborhoods with high infection rates include Bed-Stuy at 2.1%, Ocean Hill-Brownsville at 2.4% and Far Rockaway at 2%. East New York, which has a Black population of over 63% has the city’s highest infection rate at 3.4%. Meanwhile Greenwich Village/SoHo in Manhattan, which is 80% white, has the city’s lowest infection rate at 0.17%

Activists from several organizations, including the National Black Leadership Commission on Health and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), gathered at Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office last week to protest the reopening of businesses at full capacity across New York State this week

“We’re rapidly reaching the point where there are enough vaccine doses for all New Yorkers 16 and over, and broad re-opening is imminent. Yet, the vaccination rates across the city reflect stark racial and socioeconomic disparities,” said Allie Bohm of the NYCLU. “This means that we must be doing everything in our power to make sure that vaccines reach all of our communities. That requires knocking down language barriers, undertaking intensive community outreach, and navigating any economic, geographical, or other hurdles that remain.”

Vaccine equity remains an issue with Black neighborhoods not having enough access to it. While the city officials are reveling about New York’s 7.5 million vaccine doses administered, 33 neighborhoods have been identified by the Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity as having low vaccination numbers.

According to the city’s health department 25% of residents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville have been fully vaccinated, 22% in Far Rockaway, 30% in Central Harlem and 28% in St. Albans, Queens. Mostly white neighborhoods in Manhattan including the East Village, Upper East Side/Yorkville and the Lower East Side are seeing fully vaccinated rates between 50% and 60%.

While vaccine hesitancy is a factor, those who do want it are reporting having to go far from their homes to get one. Residents are also reporting that employers are not allowing them to take off work to receive the vaccine.

The AmNews spoke with Dr. Torian Easterling, first deputy commissioner and chief equity officer of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, about the disparities. He said access to the COVID vaccine by neighborhoods that have been impacted the most by the pandemic.

“All New Yorkers are within at least a mile of a vaccination site,” he said. “New York has the most robust infrastructure to ensure that vaccines are available. When we talk about the equity issues, it’s not only about access, we also want to make sure that individuals are informed, know where they can go to get vaccinated, what documents they need but also the issue of demand and addressing historical and contemporary injustices around health and medical mistrust.”

Easterling admits that the challenges that need to be addressed when it comes to access to the vaccine. He says the number of sites are being increased and that mobile units and pop-up sites continue to be deployed to neighborhoods. A pop-up vaccine site is currently at the Broadway Junction subway station in East New York and will remain there until May 22. Straphangers can not only get a COVID vaccine but also a free seven-day MetroCard.

“We have been partnering with churches as well as community-based organizations to increase those sites,” Easterling said. “You don’t just have to go to a brick and mortar site, there are mobile vans going directly in those neighborhoods.”

On the subject of high COVID-19 infection rates in Black neighborhoods, he said vaccine rollout inequities are similar to inequities in infections rates. While the vaccine is available and mandates continue to be relaxed, Easterling said masks and social distancing remain important.

“We do have folks who are unvaccinated so we have to be mindful about where we are, wearing our masks and keeping our distance,” he said. “Even though we know the CDC has updated their guidance, we have to make sure folks understand that that guidance is specifically for fully vaccinated people.”