In response to continuing efforts to protect communities in underserved parts of New York City from deadly viruses such as COVID-19 and the flu, the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem recently hosted a COVID and flu vaccination clinic in partnership with the VIP StarNetwork. Individuals ages 12 and older were invited to get free COVID and flu vaccines and boosters.
Linda Thompson, the church’s health ministry leader and health navigator, said in an interview with the AmNews that “in February 2020…Reverend Butts said this is serious…I said COVID is going to be big. We may have to shut the city down and we’re going to have to prepare…We already had…[certain] things in place. We’ve been live-streaming for 10 years.” Thompson said in-person sermons for the church ended on March 15, 2020.
As the pandemic progressed, so did the outreach from Abyssinian Baptist Church. According to Thompson, “when the tests became available, we got the tests here…at the church. The lines were around the corner, down the block, for people to come and get tested. Then came the vaccines.” The church turned one of the floors into a vaccine center and the lower floor into an area for people to wait for 15 minutes after getting vaccinated.
According to Thompson, “it was phenomenal. The lines wrapped around the corner, people had to get reservations. It was a learning process, especially for the seniors. Many of them didn’t know the internet. We had to teach folks how to use the internet quickly.”
The church held another such vaccine hub on Sunday, Mar. 5, 2023, in partnership with the VIP StarNetwork.
According to Dr. Sandra Bonat, one of the physician advisors at VIP StarNetwork, the church is part of the Choose Healthy Life Program, which brings providers in to administer vaccinations for their communities.
“People have questions—whether or not they can get the vaccine, whether they can get it depending on medications they’re on,” Bonat said. “Parents like having a physician there if they’re getting their kids vaccinated—it makes them feel more comfortable. Our company tries to put either physicians or mid-level nurse practitioners or [physician assistants] to help people getting the vaccine.”
From a racial health disparities perspective, the stakes could not be higher. According to NYC Department of Health data, 86% of adult Latino New Yorkers have completed the primary series of COVID-19 vaccines compared to 70% of adult Black New Yorkers. Adult Asian American New Yorkers outpace all groups with an astounding 99% primary series completion rate.
Dr. Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, told the AmNews, “[t]he first research that I published about the pandemic…, I found that mortality for white Americans during the pandemic is still not as bad as it is for Black Americans in the best of times when there’s no pandemic.
“I was writing this in the spring and summer of 2020, when we were actually doing all these mitigation efforts. [It] really sparked the question of why are we willing to say let’s reimagine how everything works to avoid these pandemic deaths but not to avoid the deaths that happen to Black Americans in the ordinary course of things that are actually at the same level…It’s actually a series of choices that we make.”
Abyssinian Deacon Susan Miles attended “first because I have health concerns that would trigger me to become even sicker if I acquired COVID, so that’s first and foremost. Second, I need to keep my family safe. I need to keep my community safe…People…hear all types of stories [historically] about vaccinations, so I think it’s extremely important that we listen to the science—we’re educated now—and that we get the care and vaccinations that we need.”
Thompson vowed that the work will continue. “We talk to people. What do you want to hear about? What do you want us to do for you? Then I go and I get the doctors to do it. You want a lecture on mental health? You want a lecture on eye health? Hearing? We do that. We’ve done vision. You name it. Cancer programs. The list is long, so we try to tackle it as best we can. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”For additional resources about COVID-19, visit www1.nyc.gov/site/coronavirus/index.page or call 311. COVID-19 testing, masks, and vaccination resources can also be accessed on the AmNews COVID-19 page: www.amsterdamnews.com/covid/.