Considered an underserved area
The opening of a mass vaccination site at SUNY Old Westbury’s Clark Athletic Center on March 19 gave further hope that the vaccine supply will slowly catch up to demand. Governor Andrew Cuomo was on hand on March 15 at the campus to tout 10 such centers that the state would be opening a few days hence.
Two days earlier, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran had been at a pop-up event at St. Brigid’s/Our Lady of Hope School in Westbury, emphasizing her administration’s outreach to underserved communities. About 500 Westbury-area residents were vaccinated that afternoon.
On March 17, Curran appeared at one of two county-run sites, the “Yes We Can” Community Center in the New Cassel section of Westbury, to tout the expansion of vaccine eligibility that day to public-facing government and public employees.
“Equitable access to the vaccine is my priority and priority of our Department of Health,” Curran said at St. Brigid’s, adding that Blacks and Latinos, according to polls, are less likely to want to take the vaccine.
“I want to make it clear today that this vaccine is available to all people who are eligible,” Curran said. “I also want to assure everyone that health insurance status and immigration status are not relevant to obtaining vaccines.”
She said that during the peak of the pandemic, the county had a very aggressive outreach to the communities that were very hard hit.
Equitable access to the vaccine is my priority and the priority of our Department of Health. I want to make it clear today that this vaccine is available to all people who are eligible.
“Working with our federally qualified health centers and clinics that are right in the community, we helped reduce racial disparities in terms of the impact,” Curran said. “And we’re following the same strategy with the vaccine.”
Joining Curran at St. Brigid’s were Nassau County Office of Hispanic Affairs Executive Director Amy Flores and Hempstead Hispanic Civic Association Executive Director George Siberón. Both have helped with the outreach effort.
“We were able to reach people who work in grocery stores, who work in bodegas and restaurants—essential workers who’ve been on the front lines,” Curran observed.
Added Flores: “Ensuring equitable access is important to help mitigate all the disproportionate impact that the underserved communities have faced throughout the pandemic. Today we are proud to be able to vaccinate many of those eligible members.”
Siberón said, “I tell folks, ‘Listen, I was vaccinated and so should you.’ That’s the message that we want to get out to all of our communities. Because as we continue to get the doses necessary, we will soon get to the thing that we call the herd immunity. We look forward to continuing to collaborate on this important issue in our communities.”
Inside The Gym
Nassau County Health Commissioner Dr. Larry Eisenstein walked through the gymnasium at St. Brigid’s and afterward declared, “Great site. Well done.”
Tresool Singh-Conway of East Meadow agreed to be photographed getting the jab of Moderna vaccine. Debora Lee, RN, of Massapequa and Northwell health did the jabbing.
A lot of people already call us. Because we’ve always been a resource for them. We put them on a list and once they become eligible we’ll give them a call. Because many people might not have internet or might be limited in English.
“I was actually very nervous because someone told me their wife had it and she’s experiencing a lot of chills and fever, and I got so nervous,” Singh-Conway said. “But then my husband got it—he got the Pfizer—and had no issues.”
She said she had the co-morbidities that made her eligible under recent state regulations.
“My husband was trying to get me the appointment forever, and finally one of my family members sent me the number [for this pop-up] and we called. And I got it,” Singh-Conway said.
“Just make sure it doesn’t hurt. I don’t like needles, by the way,” she told her vaccinator.
Art Raslich, a photographer with the Office of County Executive told her, “These are the sharpest needles,” and assured her it won’t hurt.
“No pain. I’m done, yeah,” Singh-Conway exclaimed after the deed.
One of those aided by Flores was Orlando Saldana of Westbury, who works at Bravo Supermarket on Post Avenue in the village. He hails from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and has been in this country three years. Grocery store workers became eligible earlier this month.
“How did he hear about this?” Flores, who acted as translator, was asked.
“From our office,” she replied. “We’ve been calling local businesses with eligible categories. The outreach is already there. A lot of people already call us. Because we’ve always been a resource for them. We put them on a list and once they become eligible we’ll give them a call. Because many people might not have internet or might be limited in English.”
Of Saldana, Flores said, “Originally he was not thinking of getting vaccinated because he was afraid. But now he wants to do it.”
The Northwell Connection
A constant presence at the numerous pop-ups is Northwell Health Corporate Emergency Management Associate Director Glenn Schaefering of Seaford.
“What’s it like trying to set up these pop-ups?” he was asked.
“We come and do a site assessment, determine if it’s good for everything,” he replied. “Today we brought in IT support. The IT in this area is not great, so we set up hot spots, wifi.”
The wifi is critical to input the vaccination information and also secure the second appointment, he said.
Though Northwell Health was designated early on as a vaccine distributor, Schaefering said the doses are now going from the federal government to the state to the local departments of health.
“We get about a 1,000 doses a week from Nassau County and then we do these pods,” he said. “We’re working seven days a week. We’re all tired. I’ve been in the command center at Northwell Health seven days a week. And if I’m not there, I’m in my office doing my real job. Or I’m home.”
His “real job” is dealing with safety and regulations at Northwell’s numerous facilities.
“We do a lot of risk assessments for the hospitals. We do a lot of pre-planning. We look at their hazards to make sure they’re compliant with a lot of Joint Commission standards that hospitals have to follow,” Schaefering said. “We’re like Seal Team Five. If someone has a problem we come in and try to mitigate it.”
Northwell Health Community Relations Regional Director Matthew DePace of East Northport is also part of the health system’s pop-up effort.
“How are these things set up?” he was asked.
“The Nassau County Department of Health gives us whatever vaccine supply that they have and support the sites that we’re doing in Nassau County,” he replied.
Regarding the vaccines he said, “The Pfizer vaccines have to be stored at sub-zero temperatures. But what we do is regulate the temperature down so when they finally get to the sites they can be stored in a regular pharmacy refrigerator. The Moderna gets brought here in a refrigerated cooler and then it goes directly into the refrigerator. At all the Northwell Health pop-ups we’ve had zero waste.”
When the pandemic hit, he related, the Community Relations team went out to do all COVID testing, all serology testing and all flu shots.
“So our team has been out in the community, hitting the ground in the really hard-hit areas basically since March,” DePace said. “We’ve been in underserved communities providing that support. Once the vaccine hit we stopped doing testing because the testing is so readily available now. It was important for us to do the vaccine distribution.”
Achieving the kind of mass vaccination that leads to the holy grail of herd immunity all depends on supply and demand, he affirmed.
“It’s my hope that we’re going to have a normal summer,” DePace concluded.
Governor At SUNY
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state would open 10 mass vaccination centers on March 19. On March 15, he was at one of them, at the Clark Athletic Center on the campus of Old Westbury.
“The vaccination task is massive,” he said. “Just to give you an idea, all the vaccinations we’ve been doing, all these weeks, all these months, we have fully vaccinated 2 million New Yorkers. We have 15 million eligible New Yorkers to vaccinate. All this work, 2 million. We have to do 15 million New Yorkers. We have a long way to go. This is an operational, logistical situation that we’ve never dealt with before. It is a major, major task.”
The governor announced that he would take his vaccine in a black church and would opt for the one-dose Johnson & Johnson one “to make the point that the Johnson & Johnson is safe.”
We have fully vaccinated 2 million New Yorkers. We have 15 million eligible New Yorkers to vaccinate. All this work, 2 million. We have to do 15 million New Yorkers. We have a long way to go.
—Governor Andrew Cuomo
Cuomo emphasized the fair distribution of vaccines, noting that “COVID wound up discriminating. COVID killed two times as many Blacks as whites, COVID killed one and a half times more Hispanics than whites. Why? Because COVID preyed on the underlying health disparity—the communities that were health care deserts, the communities that didn’t have the same access to health care so they had more comorbidities, they had more underlying conditions. When it comes to the vaccine, we have to correct that injustice.”
The governor asked faith leaders and community leaders in minority communities to let the state make use of churches and housing complexes and community centers as pop-up sites.
He continued, “You want to hear a frightening number? On Long Island about 11 percent of the population is Black, only 5 percent has taken the vaccine—half the eligible population. Hispanic community, about 17 percent of the population, only 8 percent. We have to fix that. Now, it gets complicated—and I want to be honest—they’ll say, ‘Well, there’s a hesitancy problem in the Black community.’ It’s not a hesitancy problem—we tend to come up with polite definitions for problems we don’t really like to acknowledge—there’s not a hesitancy problem, there’s a trust problem in the Black community. They don’t trust the system. They don’t trust the federal government,”
New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker welcomed the new centers and said, “The tremendous success we’ve seen here in Nassau County, where more than a quarter of the population has gotten at least one shot, is a model for the rest of the state. That’s due in part to the mass vaccination site at Jones Beach, our pop-up locations throughout the island, and the advocacy of our equity task force and our community partners. With this site opening at SUNY Old Westbury, we will be able to get more vaccines into arms as soon as possible. But there still a long road ahead. We cannot rest on our laurels or let our guard down. This virus continues to adapt, and we are now in a race between the vaccines and variants. So the sooner we get a majority of New Yorkers fully vaccinated, the sooner we head off more strains of this virus that become easier to contract and are deadlier, or could be deadlier. So please, come get your shot here at SUNY Old Westbury, or Jones Beach, or the closest vaccination site that you can find. Take whichever shot is offered. They will all work. This is how we stop COVID in its tracks, we get our lives back to normal.”
Bishop Lionel Harvey of the First Baptist Cathedral of Westbury joined the governor at Old Westbury. He has been an advocate for vaccination among the Black community and made note of the numerous faith and community leaders who were on hand.
“It is imperative that we get the vaccine in our arms,” Harvey said. “The governor had said that it was a trust issue, and I have a saying that I teach that trust is only extended to the limit of truth. And that’s why we have these trusted stakeholders that are behind us. Because they’re not going to tell you something that is going to hurt you. They’re going to tell you something that is going to help. And it’s important in our Black and Brown communities that we get vaccinated. My mother has gotten vaccinated. My father has gotten vaccinated. I have received the vaccination. And so many others in our churches have done it. This is an important time for faith leaders and community leaders, and for every single person in our community to really take on the mantle of becoming leaders.”
The bishop has noted that his community has been hard hit by the pandemic, and he has presided at too many funerals caused by COVID-19.
He concluded, “Get the vaccine because it will save your life. I’d rather have the vaccine than have the virus, so go to ny.gov/vaccine to make your appointment, and help bring in the season of healing, health and hope, love, peace and joy.”