Additional reporting by Claudia Irizarry Aponte
Jeanne Hanley, a retired NYPD dispatcher and a resident of Concord Village in The Bronx, was initially apprehensive about the COVID-19 vaccine the same way she was with flu shots growing up.
But she had seen too many people killed by the coronavirus to skip getting inoculated. When she became eligible as a senior citizen to get a shot, she couldn’t get an appointment — not through her primary care doctor, not through online sign-ups.
Then Miracle Revival Temple came through. Her church, in Mount Eden, had an in at Jacobi Medical Center.
“Pastor Gooding explained to me that there was someone making appointments for people who wished to get vaccinated,” said Hanley.
That’s Pastor Jay Gooding, who helped connect the dots for congregants.
Just a few days after sharing her information, Hanley received a call from Jacobi for an appointment. She received her second dose last Friday.
“I’m just so grateful to God,” said Hanley.
Hanley got her COVID shots through a chain of connections that ran from Jacobi to a community board to a pastor and hundreds of Bronx senior citizens who otherwise would have been refreshing web browsers or stuck on hold.
It’s an exception at a time when many local health care providers say they’re being shunted aside despite their unique advantages in getting vulnerable communities vaccinated. And it’s an exception at a time when Black senior citizens like Hanley are half as likely as their white counterparts to get COVID-19 shots.
Disparities by Neighborhood
Older people are the likeliest to die of COVID-19, and Black and Hispanic New Yorkers have died at far greater rates than white non-Hispanic or Asian New Yorkers.
As of Monday, 41,000 Black senior citizens ages 65 and over had received at least their first COVID shot, according to city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene records — roughly 15% of those eligible.
Among non-Hispanic white seniors, about 154,000 had been vaccinated, or 30%.
Numbers tracked by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene show that vaccinations so far have gone disproportionally to neighborhoods with relatively low rates of infections and deaths — and with high shares of white residents.
The Upper East Side, Upper West Side were among the top 10 neighborhoods or ZIP codes with the most number of vaccinated residents. The mostly white neighborhoods received 14% of the vaccines, while accounting for 6% of the COVID-19 fatalities.
More than a month after the elderly first became eligible, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a partnership with Black church leaders to get the word out about new mass vaccination sites in Brooklyn and Queens that opened Wednesday. Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed to deploying 250 neighborhood canvassers to set up appointments.
Both the mayor and governor have highlighted “vaccine hesitancy” and histories of distrust in the medical establishment among communities of color as explaining the disparities.
But part of the problem, say those working to get New Yorkers vaccinated, has been the expectation that people would seek out appointments and journey to wherever a shot might be available. Simply telling people what to do is not enough, advocates say.
“Word of mouth didn’t save us when we were told to wear masks when this virus hit our communities, even when we saw people who were sick and who were hospitalized,” said Ivelyse Andino, founder and CEO of the Bronx-based community health organization Radical Health. “And if we rely on word of mouth and telling communities, you know, ‘Have at it,’ you’re leaving us out to dry.”
Grassroots efforts have made headway in showing what works — provided appointments are available. Success, they’ve found, rests on intimate connections between local health care providers with direct access to appointments, trusted intermediaries and simple signups.
Operators of health care facilities serving communities of color say they’ve largely been sidelined in the vaccination rollout, which has so far centered on mass facilities such as those at the Javits Center, city and private hospitals, and drugstore chains.
The clinic network SOMOS Community Care can’t give patients shots during a visit to their doctor. Instead, its staff directs patients to travel to other locations — in The Bronx, to the mass vaccination site the organization runs at Yankee Stadium.
“That’s not enough. We have one million patients throughout the whole city,” said Ramon Tallaj, the chairman of the SOMOS Community Care board.
The bulk of SOMOS’ patients, including many Hispanic and Asian immigrants, come from medically underserved communities. “Surrogates that they can trust in their own languages” are the best way to get the vaccine to more people, Tallaj said.
“The Department of Health or whatever, they don’t know who that person is,” he said. “You use somebody they trust in the community and you give them the vaccine, you’ll see the people coming to get vaccinated.”
Community Healthcare Network executive Susan Yee jumped into action in December when she learned her dozen clinics would be receiving vaccine doses from the state.
Staff pulled patient records and made hundreds of calls to patients 65 and older.
The results varied.
“In East New York and South Bronx, it was a little bit easier in terms of the acceptance,” said Yee. “Crown Heights, with a larger Caribbean patient community, was a little bit more hesitant.”
Since then, she has seen more overall willingness among patients as the COVID-19 vaccine comes into wider use.
But getting allocations of the Moderna or Pfizer serum from the city and state has become more difficult. As of Feb. 15, eligibility expanded to include people with pre-existing health conditions as well as senior citizens and highly exposed workers.
Yee asked the state for more doses earlier this month — but was denied for two weeks in a row, she said. Two requests of 400 doses each finally arrived this week.
“When we first got the supply, we had 1,100 doses and we couldn’t convince people to get it,” Yee said. “And so now that we’ve got some momentum, and more people trusting it, and the word of mouth and more established organizations finding out that we can partner, there’s a demand, but we don’t have the supply.”
Tunnel, then Light
Meanwhile, city numbers show that the whiter the neighborhood, the more likely residents have been vaccinated.
Two Queens neighborhoods highlight the disparities. In Breezy Point, where the entire senior citizen population is white and where many vaccine-eligible first responders live, nearly 40% have received at least one dose.
Meanwhile in Rosedale, where 95% of all seniors are Black, less than 6% of all residents received at least one dose, according to the city’s data.
But Allerton, in The Bronx, is among the exceptions — with a 12.5% vaccination rate, which is higher than the city and borough average.
The 10469 zip code is 75% Black and Hispanic, and has lost 406 residents to COVID-19 — a higher share of its population than any other neighborhood in The Bronx.
Gooding of Miracle Revival Temple believes his efforts with Jacobi have something to do with it.
He recalled arranging at least five funerals for his members who died of COVID-19. Almost a year into the pandemic, he said, he is noticing the impact of vaccinations, social-distancing and people wearing masks.
“I do see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Gooding.
Gooding has referred dozens of his congregants, including Hanley, to Al D’Angelo, the chair of local Bronx Community Board 11.
“I’ve been disseminating the message in our Black and brown community and Al has been very instrumental in helping us,” said Gooding.
D’Angelo, who also sits on the board of nearby Jacobi Medical Center, received a request from a hospital staff member to come up with a list of seniors in the neighborhood who might be willing to get vaccinated.
He reached out to senior centers, local churches and a mosque.
“I put it out to all the community leaders,” said D’Angelo. “Anyone I knew, I let them know that if they needed this vaccine, please contact me.”
It didn’t take long for his list to grow 300 names long.
“Within a day or two, they were scheduled for an appointment, and then got their shots.”