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Wien House, a home for low-income seniors and people with mobility impairments in Inwood, secured coronavirus vaccine shots for residents, Jan. 20, 2021.

Courtesy of the Wien House

Some NYC Seniors Are Getting Vaccinated in Their Buildings. Many Others Never Got a Shot to Apply

SHARE Some NYC Seniors Are Getting Vaccinated in Their Buildings. Many Others Never Got a Shot to Apply
SHARE Some NYC Seniors Are Getting Vaccinated in Their Buildings. Many Others Never Got a Shot to Apply

In early January, Mark Jennings got an email from a colleague that gave him a glimmer of hope.

The message for Jennings — an administrator for the nonprofit Project FIND, which runs supportive housing for low-income and homeless seniors — told him about a federal program that would bring COVID-19 vaccines straight to his residents, with pharmacists to administer shots on site.

The opportunity would have been a life-saver, he said: His organization runs three facilities in Manhattan with close to 600 tenants, nearly all of them over 65.

But when Jennings looked into applying for the program run by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in partnership with CVS and Walgreens, he soon learned he’d missed the deadline — by months. The form was due the first week of November, and enrollment is now closed, according to the CDC.

“I really just wish I would have seen this early on,” he told THE CITY. “We definitely would have applied.”

The program is primarily known for bringing vaccines to long-term care facilities and nursing homes. But it also quietly allowed a specific group of federally subsidized senior housing — known as HUD 202s — to join the program, as well.

Project FIND’s buildings are not HUD 202s, and were not technically eligible for the program. But they might have gotten through anyway, if given the chance.

THE CITY found at least one federally subsidized building in Manhattan currently getting vaccines through the program, even though it’s not technically eligible.

Manhattan Plaza — the famed West Side artist housing complex that was once a home to Alicia Keys, Larry David, Timothée Chalamet and other stars — applied for the CDC program back in November, according to Jon Weinstein, a spokesperson for Related Management. 

‘There Wasn’t Any Line’

The application said HUD-funded affordable senior housing could apply, he noted. Given that Manhattan Plaza, which has a significant senior citizen population, is HUD-funded through the Section 8 program, Related put in an application.

“The CDC announced an available program for affordable senior housing, we applied,” said Weinstein. “We’re deeply grateful that the seniors at Manhattan Plaza were able to take part in this federal program and get the vaccine.”

Pharmacists arrived on Jan. 18 to give the first shots to Manhattan Plaza residents 65 and over. 

The mood in the room that day was “joyful,” said Aleta LaFargue, the complex’s tenant association president and a candidate for City Council.

“It was super smooth. There wasn’t any line,” she said

According to tenant leaders, nearly 1,000 seniors have gotten the vaccines so far in the complex, which is home to many low- and middle-income tenants.

Uneven Rollout

For those getting vaccination visits through the program, it’s a dream come true, said Linda Couch, vice president of housing policy for LeadingAge, a national advocacy group for service providers for older Americans. 

“People are so ecstatic,” she said.

But the rollout has been rocky, despite her group’s push to get the word out.

“For every one of those [who took part in the program], we hear about others who either didn’t sign up, or are 100% sure they did sign up, but then somehow fell off the list, or couldn’t sign up because they didn’t fit the strict definition of a [HUD] 202,” she said.

Yet, in a handful of cases, she’s also heard from senior housing facilities that never even signed up but have still been contacted by the federal program to set up vaccinations.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Couch said. “If someone’s gonna bring vaccines to your 50 seniors — say, ‘Please, yes.’”

A spokesperson for the CDC’s vaccine taskforce, Chandra Zeikel, said the agency “engaged with a variety of partners to promote enrollment in the program” — including other Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, healthcare associations, professional organizations and nonprofits. 

‘Missing That Opportunity’

LeadingAge and other senior advocates say senior housing complexes — particularly ones serving low-income people — are ideal places to push out the vaccine.

“There’s a really huge opportunity to build trust among populations that might be wary of getting the vaccine by doing it in a place that they’re familiar with,” said Katelyn Andrews, director of public policy at LiveOn NY, a local advocacy group. “We’re missing that opportunity.”

In Inwood, Michael Fermaglich saw that reluctance firsthand at Wien House, a supportive housing residence for 115 low-income seniors and people with physical disabilities where he serves as director.

Manhattan Plaza was able to secure COVID vaccines for its residents. Feb. 1, 2021.

Jose Martinez/THE CITY

On Jan. 20, pharmacists from Walgreens came to the building and vaccinated a majority of the tenants under the CDC program. That’s a huge accomplishment, Fermaglich said, for a building where many residents have roots in Russia, the Dominican Republic, China or Korea, and didn’t have much trust in or enthusiasm for the vaccine.

“When we first put up the sign-up, I mean, there was almost nobody who signed up,” he said.

Fermaglich and the residence’s service coordinator, Francisco Concepcion, got the first jabs to demonstrate the vaccine’s safety. Thanks to that — and cajoling of tenants by staff — about 70% of residents are now set to be inoculated, Fermaglich said.

At Project FIND, Jennings said the opportunity to set up something similar would be “beautiful.” Now, his residents are forced to sign up through the jammed public vaccine system.

One resident at Hargrave House, a home on the Upper West Side for more than 100 seniors, begged Jennings to figure out a way to get vaccines on site, during a recent Zoom tenant meeting, he said.

“‘You tell me to stay in the house, and now you want to send me out in the elements and put me around all of these people to get this vaccine. And you want me to travel in the cold?’” Jennings recalled the man saying. “‘Can you bring it here?’” 

“It’s just a no-brainer,” Jennings said.