A prominent figure in the South Bronx through his ministry and food pantry, Rev. John Udo-Okon sees the impact of COVID-19 on his community firsthand. He experienced the physical toll early last year, when he had to close his food pantry for a few weeks after he and
family members contracted the virus. Nearly a year later, he still sees its effects when he welcomes people to the pantry, where he says that the foodline has grown during the crisis. And he has seen it as part of his religious vocation.
“We deal with a community which has been traumatized. As a pastor, I’ve conducted so many funerals,” he told the Indypendent. Reverend Udo-Okon estimated that, in a normal year, he conducts only two or three, but during the pandemic he has presided over 10 to 15.
But, new, life-saving vaccines became available in December. As the Indypendent goes to press, 18% of Americans have received at least one vaccine dose according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, there continue to be large racial disparities in who receives the vaccines nationally, as well as here in New York City.
Sixty-nine percent more Black New Yorkers and 88% more Latinx New Yorkers have died from COVID-19 than white New Yorkers, according to the City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s data portal. According to the city, however, as of early March, the percent-age of white New Yorkers who have been fully vaccinated is more than twice that of either Black or Latinx New Yorkers.
The reasons for these disparities are varied and include skepticism about the medical establishment among historically marginalized communities, preexisting structural issues in U.S. healthcare, the high proportion of people of color working low-wage jobs with long hours, difficulties with making appointments online and traveling to vaccination sites, and the overrepresentation of whites in the ranks of the elderly that were among the first to be vaccinated.
To counteract this imbalance, community leaders like Rev. Udo- Okon are using their influence to encourage local residents to get vaccinated. Based near the Longwood stop on the 6 train in the South Bronx, Rev. Udo-Okon and his volunteer staff at Word of Life International’s food pantry spend their Saturdays preparing crates of food to hand out to those lined up outside. Sometimes they also offer other services, such as pop-up HIV testing, according to Reverend Udo-Okon. And recently, the pantry has been working as a community partner with Dr. Zainab Toteh Osakwe, an assistant professor at Adelphi University’s school of Nursing and Public Health.
Dr. Osakwe is part of a team studying coronavirus vaccine hesitancy. She recruits people with concerns about the vaccine from the food line, and brings them to a desk in Word of Life’s main hall to speak about their worries.
The pantry’s commitment to being a location for discussing the vaccine has made it a central site for her research. She says that the pantry has started to forward questions to her from people who come to the site when she is not around.
“There’s a huge potential here,” she said of the impact Word of Life could have in providing information to the community as a trusted resource. “There’s a very strong trust factor here and sites like this are a great opportunity.”
Lizbeth Rochez said via a translator that she wanted an appointment but didn’t understand how to use the internet to get one.
Efforts by community members and local advocates like Rev. Udo-Okon to publicize the safety of the vaccine are already having an impact. For instance, Christine Culpepper De Ruiz, a Latina who lives in the Bronx, said that seeing other people talk about and post photos of getting the vaccine helped her feel more comfortable going to Yankee Stadium for her first dose, and she hopes to provide similar reassurance to others now that she has received it.
Cheikhou Oumar Ann, a community health advocate for Bronx Health Reach/The Institute for Family Health, is working to address the concerns of Muslim New Yorkers in the South Bronx, just a mile southeast of Yankee Stadium. He said that a local imam announcing his own vaccination after Friday prayer and in a Whatsapp group drove interest in one community from 10 New Yorkers reaching out to him about the vaccine in a day to 50 or 60 over the course of a weekend.
The infamous 1932–1072 Tuskegee Study of 399 Black men whose syphilis cases were left untreated is frequently cited as a reason for distrust of the government and the medical profession. However, no empirical evidence has been presented to back up that claim.
Dr. Betty Kolod, who practices medicine at an East Harlem hospital, says she has patients who are hesitant to take the vaccine, but they don’t cite Tuskegee to explain their wariness if they are even aware of it. Instead, she believes it’s their interactions with today’s medical professionals that have given them reason to be skeptical. She says many have gone uninsured or underinsured; they have been left waiting for hours for treatment and given second-rate care when they are treated. When they try to talk to physicians about their experience, they have been ignored.
“I’ve noticed that, at the tiniest signal for patients that I’m listening to them, they will often become emotional,” Kolod said. “It’s so unusual to them that a medical provider would listen to them or want to hear what they have to say.”
This accords with the experience of Sandra Rivas. While she recently waited in line at the Word of Life pantry, she described how she caught COVID-19 in April but chose not to go to the hospital. She said she stayed home and medicated herself.
But, when vaccines became available, she says she decided to get it and obtained an upcoming appointment at Yankee Stadium. Her family members are scared to take the vaccine, she says, but say they will do so if they see she is unharmed by her vaccination.
When asked who she trusts most regarding the vaccine, she said “In my own experience, anything is better than suffering. I trust myself.”
Others standing in line at the food pantry felt similarly. The seven people the Indy spoke to said they had been vaccinated, were awaiting an appointment, or were trying to get an appointment.
Shari Cornish said she received the vaccine after searching for hours for an online appointment with her 15-year-old daughter. But, now she is concerned that her daughter will not be vaccinated before she has to go back to school, and will bring the virus home.
Lizbeth Rochez said via a translator that she wanted an appointment but didn’t understand how to use the internet to get one. And, Max Daniel said, “If you could get me one tomorrow, I’ll take it,” but when he and his wife were able to schedule appointments in February, they were not available for months.
So what will it take to get more Black and Latinx New Yorkers vaccinated?
With its Vaccine Command Center set up at 253 Broadway across the street from City Hall, the de Blasio administration has initiated a number of community engagement initiatives. This includes setting up vaccination sites at New York City Housing Authority buildings and at safety net hospitals and providing local groups with fliers and palm cards and videos produced by the City’s Department of Health in 14 different languages.
But, multiple people working with locals or living in areas hard hit by the virus thought that city government should improve its outreach to maximize the number of people who can be helped in accessing the vaccine.
Going to where people already are is crucial, says Dr. Kolod — be it on social media sites or at physical spaces like churches and barber shops.
“It has to be through conversation and in settings that people are already gathering at,” she said.
Toward that end, local pharmacies have started to give vaccinations. In early March, the city announced it would begin doing in-home vaccinations for homebound New Yorkers. On March 6, the city opened a vaccination center at Co-op City, the massive union-built afford- able housing complex in the northeastern Bronx. The move came at the behest of freshman congressman Jamaal Bowman and other Bronx elected officials and with funding from the Biden Administration.
“The best way to vaccinate people is in their own neighborhood,” Mayor de Blasio said at a Co-op City press conference.
Meanwhile, local figures like Rev. Udo-Okon and Oumar Ann and medical professionals like Dr. Kolod continue working with the vulnerable directly, offering resources and information.
On the first Saturday in March, the line of people waiting for food in 32-degree weather stretched a little over half a block, down from Word of Life to a nearby intersection and just around the corner.
“Can you imagine if there were fliers being given out to all these people? That would make a lot of difference,” said Rev. Udo-Okon.
In the afternoon, Oumar Ann arrived by car at the pantry.
In the trunk were boxes of the city’s informational signs and palm cards about COVID safety tips, including some in Arabic, and at least one box of fliers titled “What New Yorkers Need to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines.” Written on the box with a felt-tip pen was “2,000 Spanish, 2,000 English.”
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