Councilmember Debi Rose rolls up her sleeve to get vaccinated and inform New Yorkers about COVID-19 safety protocols. Credit: City Council Staff photo

For months, lines snaked around city blocks outside of convention centers, hospitals, and pharmacies as New Yorkers rushed to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But as spring turned to summer and then fall, the lines for the shots began to dwindle like the number of leaves on park trees, leaving millions of New Yorkers, especially Black New Yorkers, un or under-vaccinated.  Early December brought the total number of vaccine doses administered in the city to 12,658,147. As New York prepares itself for yet another possible wave of infections and deaths, who are the people ensuring those receiving these doses were able to get to vaccination sites? That they had the information necessary to make informed decisions about getting vaccinated? What are these same people doing to work with those in the Black community that are still not vaccinated?

This is the second in a three-part series examining the challenges around coronavirus vaccine rollout within the Black community in the New York region. As explored in the first article in this series––the “COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on the Black community. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that COVID-19 hospitalization rates among Blacks were about 4.7 times the rate of whites”––crowded living conditions, being essential workers, lack of access to proper health care, and chronic health conditions are just a few of the factors contributing to the devastating effect of COVID-19 in the Black community.

According to the New York City Department of Health, 49% of Black New Yorkers in the city are fully vaccinated in the city. 54% of Black New Yorkers in the city have at least the first dose. Overall, 70% of New Yorkers in the city are fully vaccinated and 78% of New Yorkers in the city have received at least the first dose. This double-digit discrepancy is a significant reason that Black New Yorkers are far more likely than their white neighbors to contract and die of COVID-19. 

Vaccine hesitancy is not a new phenomenon nor limited to communities of color. The World Health Organization’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) Working Group defines vaccine hesitancy as a “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccine services. Vaccine hesitancy is complex and context-specific, varying across time, place, and vaccines. It is influenced by factors such as complacency, convenience, and confidence.” 

Black New Yorkers will only reach vaccination parity when they have both equal access to and trust that vaccines are safe. A crucial part of making that happen are the individuals working within the community to ensure Black New Yorkers are properly informed.

Nicole Meyers, president of the National Council of Negro Women, Staten Island section, is one such advocate. As Meyers told the AmNews, “Institutional racism, historical inequities in health care…and lack of trusted messengers informing Black and Brown people of the benefits of becoming vaccinated. It’s grounded in institutional racism. It is built into the system.” 

Meyers explained that “the historical traumas of the Tuskegee experiment, Lacks and Sims certainly provide critical context to the normalized experiences and fears that are embedded in present-day responses to vaccine mistrust among Black families.” She went on to say that “although we know that not every Black person may have a keen awareness of [the] Tuskegee, Sims, and Lacks cases, we can certainly attribute some of the distrust to those cases. It merely serves as an example of the racism that Black communities face.” The denial of appropriate medical care, and having conditions misdiagnosed, or medical treatment withheld, are also contributing factors according to Meyers. 

More than simply identifying some of the root causes of mistrust and hesitancy within the community, Meyers and her colleagues have partnered with local organizations to facilitate prioritizing access to the vaccine; created their own vaccine waitlist; scheduled appointments for community members as well as taken them to appointments; held monthly virtual COVID-19 educational webinars and invited experts to discuss updates and answer questions received from the Black and Brown communities; and invited Black and Brown leaders to directly ask questions. 

Mosezetta Overby credits the efforts of the National Council for Negro Women generally and Meyers specifically, with helping her overcome concerns regarding getting vaccinated. Overby, a retired educator, said that she first received a letter from NCNW asking if she was interested in getting the vaccine. “I was nervous. I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure what would happen…I was getting information from various places.” She credits the continued efforts of Meyers and NCNW with helping her sift through all the data she was getting, and make an informed decision based on facts and science. She also indicated that, in addition to her hesitance around the vaccine, and the challenges of digesting advice from various sources, physically getting to vaccine sites was also a battle. 

Mosezetta Overby, a retired educator, overcame vaccine hesitancy with the help of community outreach and education. (Heather Butts photo)

NCNW and Meyers helped with that as well. “They made it very easy.” When the booster shot was available, Overby indicated that NCNW helped her to get phone numbers, get locations about where to obtain the booster shot, and helped her make a booster shot appointment. “I needed help navigating the system.” Community members like Meyers, trusted by Overby, provided that much needed help. 

Those trying to ensure that community members are vaccinated are also using multimedia to get the word out. Dr. Tonya Taylor, PHD, MS, assistant professor, Special Treatment and Research (STAR) Program, College of Medicine, SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, has created a series for DownstateTV called “Coronavirus, COVID-19 Information Session.” Titles include “What is COVID-19” and “What to do if you or someone in your home gets sick.” Taylor’s series, which is on YouTube, has been viewed hundreds of times and has provided a wealth of information from hand washing, to mask wearing, to how the disease spreads, for people in New York City and beyond. In addition to the web series, Taylor has also participated in several educational sessions including a Town Hall in March 2021 hosted by the National Black Leadership Commission on Health and Harlem Prevention Center entitled “COVID-19 Vaccines.”

It’s not just the medical community that is fighting to keep Black New Yorkers informed, their elected leaders are doing their part as well. Councilmember Debi Rose of the 49th District in Staten Island leads by example. As she said, “I’m fully vaccinated and wear a mask when attending indoor social gatherings. My staff and I have worked hard to inform our constituents about the COVID-19 virus and the importance of wearing masks in crowded settings and getting fully vaccinated. And we provide masks to anyone or any organization that requests them.” Rose also spoke about a newsletter that she emails her constituents every Friday, featuring a regular “Vaccination Updates” section. It includes the latest news about COVID-19 and its variants, where to get vaccinated, the availability of home vaccinations, free transportation to vaccination sites, and in-school vaccinations.

“We have worked closely with city Health Department officials to schedule NYC Mobile and Pop-Up vaccine sites in our district,” Rose said.  

Minister Robert Perkins, Staten Island Male District Leader of the 61st Assembly District, also believes in doing his part, stating, “I personally took the shot, and have successfully supervised Test and Trace Teams. I’m currently a COVID-19 Tracker and constantly carry informative literature, masks to give out, and hand sanitizer.” 

Community leader and Harlem Children’s Zone President and founder Geoffrey Canada wrote a piece for PolicyLink entitled “Why I took the COVID-19 Vaccine” to add his voice to the call for individuals in the Black community to get vaccinated. “I did not decide to get vaccinated without reflecting deeply on the relationship between Black and Brown communities and the health-care system in the United States. However, I’m confident I made the right decision for myself and my family, and I’m sharing my thoughts with you with the hope that you will do the same.” According to Canada, the virus must be stopped, and the most effective way to do that is to get vaccinated. 

The digital media community is also getting the word out. S. Mitra Kilatra is ​​the co-founder and publisher of Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic and navigate vaccine registration. Kalita spoke with AmNews and said, “The good news is overall New York is doing great. The bad news is as the vaccine rolled out Black and Brown communities still have problems. You need an internet connection to book your vaccine appointment. If you work two to three jobs, finding a place that can accommodate you past 7 p.m. is still really hard. If you don’t speak English, it’s pretty hard to get a vaccine because you may have issues with documentation.”

Kalita also explained how time is an issue for people, especially those in the Black community who may not have a surplus in their schedule to chronicle minute-to-minute COVID changes. Kalita also highlighted the multitude of inequities in communities such as a lack of grocery stores, absence of transit hubs, and dearth of media outlets that people feel they can get trusted information from. According to Kalita, it’s not possible to treat the issue of under-vaccinated individuals as solely an issue of vaccines. “These are communities that were feeling acutely disconnected before COVID.”  

Kalita and her team are doing their part with newsletters, vaccine help, vaccine registration assistance, and more to get information to the communities in need.

Johnnie M. Walker, Bethune-Height Recognition Program national co-chair, and New York State Convener, shares this view. Walker said that “lack of trust in the medical and science profession” is a large barrier in people getting the vaccine, but that “outreach such as webinars and workshops can be critical in sharing information,” and that’s the work that Walker is specifically engaged in.

It is this “lack of trust” that Lorna Wilson, treasurer of the Faith United Methodist Church, also cites as a massive barrier to Black community members getting vaccinated. “Most people feel like the vaccine is against us. It is miseducation. It’s sad. People ask how did it come up so fast; I say scientists don’t go on vacation.”

Where do we go from here? Nicole Meyers of NCNW believes we need to “increase the number of trusted messengers. Provide more community-based awareness programs and educate the community leaders. The training and awareness must be designed in digestible ways so that accurate information about the benefits of being vaccinated becomes a normalized discussion and not a discussion based on a debate.”

According to Lorna Wilson of Faith United Methodist Church, “The Black community has been historically marginalized. There’s so much distrust. We need people we can trust.” As reported in  an article in the British Medical Journal, “Unvaccinated Americans have died at 11 times the rate of those fully vaccinated since the delta variant became the dominant strain.” Further, “vaccinated people were 10 times less likely to be admitted to hospital and five times less likely to be infected than unvaccinated people.” ​​

The stakes are high not just for Black New Yorkers but the entire city if high quality information from trusted sources is not provided to the Black community to inspire more people to get vaccinated. 

Funding for this story was provided by a Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative & National Association of Black Journalists Black Press Grant.

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