As of March 16, over 1.7 million New York City residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Despite this progress, residents of the Bronx, which has been hard hit by the pandemic, are experiencing frustration and disappointment with the vaccination process.
Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio opened up a mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Yankee Stadium on Feb. 5, with the help of SOMOS Community Care and the New York National Guard, in an effort to encourage Bronx residents to get vaccinated and ensure fairness and equity in distribution.
“It’s abundantly clear that Black, Latino, and poor communities have been hit the hardest by COVID, and the Bronx is no exception,” said Cuomo. According to Suburban Stats, between 2019 and 2020, 53 percent of the Bronx population was Hispanic, 36 percent was Black and 27 percent was white. However, it appears that some Bronxites are not receiving the help and attention they need in the process of getting the vaccine.
The People of Color Health Justice Campaign (POC HJ) held an online discussion, “Vaccine Racism Must Stop!,” at the end of February to share experiences that individuals throughout the city have gone through in trying to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Chhaya Chhoum, executive director of Mekong NYC, explained during the online event how during the pandemic she had to assist the South Asian community by translating information about the pandemic and the vaccine protocols, since there were no documents readily available in languages other than English. It was up to her and her Bronx-based organization to properly educate the community about new particulars on the virus and the vaccines.
Chhoum had gone to the Yankee Stadium site to help her father and aunt get vaccinated on a rainy day. While they were waiting on the long line, she noticed that there was no coverage to protect the elderly from getting wet, there were extended delays to pass through metal detectors, and there was limited seating inside. After waiting in the line, Chhoum was informed that she could not go inside because she had a laptop and the site was following the stadium’s protocols — ones designed to protect tightly packed crowds of up to 50,000 fans from a terrorist attack, as opposed to the roughly 1,000 citizens a day that pass through the facility between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. for vaccines. So Chhoum had to interpret details about the vaccination process for her father and aunt over the phone, rather than physically accompanying them as she had planned.
“This told me that they valued the damn building more than our people,” Chhoum said, adding that the facility did not seem to be allowing anyone other than those receiving shots to go inside, despite the fact that some needed translation help or a home attendant to accompany them. After going through this experience, she learned that at one of Riverdale’s vaccination sites, where the area is 59 percent white, the elderly were provided with hot chocolate and snacks to keep them comfortable. Meanwhile, she could not set foot inside Yankee Stadium to help her family. “I will continue to fight for my people and all of our people to get fair and equitable vaccination. For us, there is no health justice without racial justice,” Chhoum said. “Shame on the city for treating us like undignified human beings.”
The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on national health issues, conducted a study showcasing how racial disparities are playing a huge role in communities receiving the vaccine throughout the country. “As of late January 2021,” the study reports, “just over a third of Hispanic adults (37%) said they wanted to “wait and see” how the vaccine works for other people, compared to 43% of Black adults and just over a quarter (26%) of White adults.”
The Kaiser study revealed several reasons why the Hispanic community would hesitate to receive the vaccine, such as having high uninsured rates, which, because of language barriers, can lead to concerns about costs, although the vaccine is free. Additionally, the community is concerned that signing up for the shots might complicate their family’s or their own immigration status. KFF reported that the federal government is setting up vaccination sites in community centers in an attempt to gain the trust of the Hispanic community.
Many of the discussions during “Vaccine Racism Must Stop!” concerned how undocumented communities throughout the city are not being properly informed on many levels about the vaccine. Alexa Avilés, Sunset Park community leader and candidate for city council for District 38, related the story of an undocumented family and their suffering from COVID-19. The mother, Maria, and her family all contracted the virus: “Suddenly, everyone in our house was sick.” She was in and out of the hospital; her uncle died in their home. Maria still has ongoing complications, and does not know if she should be getting a vaccine, or how to get it for her family. “None of the doctors I’ve seen said anything about it. I’m a little scared to take it. We’re not getting clear enough information that we can use to see if it’s good for us or not. We need places to go where we feel safe. To help us do the paperwork. Some of us don’t know technology.” As the Kaiser report noted is happening on the national level, she and others in the community are also afraid the vaccine will cause trouble for a family member’s immigration status.
Latisha Gibbs, of Health People, in the Bronx, was upset at the difficulty of getting the vaccine in her South Bronx neighborhood. She pointed out that many people in her community tried to get appointments at big chain drug stores, but with the limited number of pharmacies in her area, the appointments got booked quickly. Because of this, people were wait-listed. “We have to stand up because the people in the state and city have to know our poverty level does not determine the level of healthcare that a person should receive,” Gibbs said.
NYC Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, chair of the council’s committee on hospitals, also attended the online event, and agreed with those who noted that Black, Hispanic, Asian, and other communities of color do not get proper medical treatment. She explained, “It’s clear from City data that vaccination rates are significantly higher in zip codes with higher proportions of white residents, and we must reverse this trend with clear documentation of vaccine supplies going to communities of color, with community-based outreach alongside to combat concerns and questions.”
The Think Tank at the Thinkubator, with the help of Dr. Lessie Branch and the Bronx Community Foundation, conducted a survey in February of 500 New York City residents, seeking responses to getting the Covid-19 vaccine, which demonstrated the challenges facing the Bronx. Only 46 percent of Bronx residents responded in the affirmative that they will get the vaccine, compared to almost 60 percent of New York City residents. “The data is troubling and leaders need to do everything they can to educate the Bronx community, particularly in light of infection and death rates and the multiple variants that are emerging,” said Dr. Edward Summers, president and CEO of the Thinkubator.
On February 28, Representative Jamaal Bowman and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sent an urgent letter to President Joe Biden asking him to provide Co-Op City, Edenwald, and Wakefield, in the Bronx, with additional vaccines in light of the abundance of resident seniors and people of color. At the time, only four percent of Wakefield residents and seven percent in Co-Op City and Edenwald had been vaccinated, compared to 13 percent statewide.
By March 4, Co-Op City had opened a vaccination site, run by the NYC Department of Health and available only to residents. The site eventually plans on administering 1,000 doses per day of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Adriana Jackson, a Co-Op City resident, was relieved when she discovered that her neighborhood was providing vaccines. “It makes me feel a lot better knowing that my mom doesn’t have to travel across the Bronx to get a shot,” she said.
Cuomo announced on March 11 that there would be 14 more community-based pop-up vaccination sites in New York that week, with expectations of vaccinating more than 4,000 people throughout the week. Two of them would be located in the Bronx: Twin Parks East and Church of the Mediator. As with previous pop-up sites, these will be re-established in three weeks to administer second doses.
“We need to prioritize everyone with this vaccine,” says Jackson. “No matter how old, the color of their skin or even how much money they have, everyone should have access to take care of themselves.” ❖