As New York struggles with yet another COVID wave, local organizations are stepping up to assist communities in their time of need. The latest statistics confirm the ongoing challenge that COVID-19 presents. In late December, New York City had a 7-day average of over 14,000 new COVID cases per day according to the Mayor’s Office. This is up nearly 10 times from Nov. 18, 2021, when there were 1,240 new cases per day. The Omicron variant, which seems to be more transmissible, is making up the majority of new cases.

This is the third in a three-part series examining the challenges around coronavirus vaccine rollout within the Black community in the New York region. The first two articles focused on the overall issue of vaccine hesitancy and access and the people bringing information to those in need during the time of COVID. This article will highlight the organizations making a difference. 

The Brooklyn-based Alex House Project is one organization doing this important work. Founder and Executive Director Samora Coles told the AmNews, “It is no secret that Black and Brown communities continue to be disproportionately affected by hardship and death from COVID-19.” Coles notes the social determinants and societal factors at play in this disparity. “First, poverty, overcrowding, the large concentration of minorities in blue collar jobs that cannot be done remotely, long commutes, and pre-existing health conditions all mean that Black and Brown New Yorkers get sick and die from the virus in higher numbers than the rest of the population.” 

Coles also highlighted the pre-pandemic conditions, discrimination, segregation, and overall neglect from the healthcare profession as additional factors. “All of these conditions combined lead to the mistrust that low-income, minority communities have with government and the medical industry, and thus adversely impacts both the willingness and the ability of Black and Brown New Yorkers to receive COVID-19 vaccines.”

Samora Coles, executive director of the Alex House Project, supports daily community outreach in public parks in Red Hook, Sunset Park, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Credit: The Alex House Project photo

The Alex House Project has taken a multifaceted approach to help their community grapple with COVID. Their initiatives have included providing vaccine education throughout New York City, daily community outreach in public parks in Red Hook, Sunset Park, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and “Real Talk” conversations hosted via Zoom. These conversations included three doctors, who are all women of color, explaining how the vaccine works, why it is safe, and the importance of getting the vaccine. Additional outreach efforts include recruiting and training residents from the very neighborhoods the Alex House Project serves as “health navigators.” They have coordinated with nearby city vaccination trucks to ensure easy access, inform people about New York City’s vaccine incentive program and, when necessary, walk the person over to the nearest truck. 

One person that has served in this role of helping people with vaccine mistrust, and being helped herself, is Kaleshia Sostre who is a junior program manager at the Alex House Project. Eight years ago she was a participant in the program and over time went from living in a shelter after having just had another child to helping other mothers in need. With the assistance of Coles, she made school a priority, and during the pandemic, received her GED.

When asked about whether she had been wary of getting the vaccine, Sostre spoke of some of the false information that she had heard which was influencing her decision making process. “I was hesitant to get the vaccine because of rumors of having a chip when you get the shot, or you can not get pregnant once you get the vaccine. Or what will happen to you in the future? That is why I was hesitant.” 

Sostre points to her educational outreach work at Alex House Project and her own lived experiences with helping her overcome her hesitancy. “A lot of people around me got COVID. I saw people dying from COVID. I had to think about my children and not the rumors.” Her outreach work at the Alex House Project had a profound impact on her own vaccine hesitancy. “At one point in the Summer of 2021, I had a team doing outreach. The people started to ask if I had been vaccinated. I am telling other people to get vaccinated, why am I not vaccinated,” Sostre stated. She credits this outreach and education for others with helping her decide to get vaccinated herself. 

National Council for Negro Women Staten Island member Barbara Maxwell also credits helping others to help oneself. An active member of NCNW, she reached out to the organization to get vaccine appointments for herself and others. Maxwell spoke to the AmNews about individuals’ hesitation to get the vaccine, pointing to individuals falsely believing that once they have had COVID they can not contract it again as a reason to not get vaccinated. “Education saves lives. It is selfish not to get the vaccine. Why put others at risk?”

Getting the word out about vaccines and providing additional resources to those hit hardest by COVID is at the heart of what a number of community-based organizations are doing. Staten Island University Hospital, Northwell Health, Children of Promise, NYC, and The Staten Island Not for Profit Association’s Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) are three examples of how local organizations are working to keep their community informed, healthy and safe. 

Claudette Hill, a registered nurse and administrative director of Community Health at Staten Island University Hospital, Northwell Health, was instrumental in several vaccine programs throughout Staten Island. During the summer of 2021, the organization had several listening tours and heard concerns from the community about the vaccine and COVID-19.

Sharon Content, founder and president of Children of Promise, NYC, who spoke to the AmNews about food insecurity during COVID, knows that keeping vulnerable New Yorkers fed is an important part of keeping them healthy. The organization focused on serving grab-and-go hot meals and dispersing them to families. “We recognized the needs of our families and pivoted.” Other programming included education around vaccines, mental health services and psychotherapy, and a learning lab for individuals in need of technical support. 

COAD decided that there was a need for a public messaging campaign on Staten Island. According to Program Manager Frank Blancero, “We were trying to find a way to be more accessible to more people. Three specific things we have done: updating our website; changing the way we approached our email communications, doing more targeted emails and being intentional about how we reach out by email; and the social media approach and making sure we were reaching communities that had not been reached, putting out professional content for members of the community.”

The Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health has taken a multiple partnership approach to ensure that they reach the largest number of New Yorkers possible. The pandemic forced the Arthur Ashe Institute to look beyond the usual suspects to get accurate information to those who needed it most. “When salons and barbershops were shut down, we did ZOOM sessions with barbers and stylists. Also ZOOM session on vaccines, vaccine hesitancy, and myths. Getting the correct information. There’s a lot of mistrust. A lot has been done to communities of color. COVID has had a devastating impact on mental health,” CEO Marilyn Fraser said in an interview.

Black Americans remain under-vaccinated and the work that these organizations are doing is crucial to stem the rising tide of new COVID cases. In the fight to finish off COVID, community-based organizations are crucially filling the gaps that decades of institutional and medical racism have created.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

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

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