By Cyril Josh Barker and Nayaba Arinde
Black New Yorkers make up 31% of people who are fully vaccinated in the city and 34% have at least the first dose, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. When looking at the fact that whites make up 46% who are fully vaccinated and 48% have their first dose, the data tells a blatant story of a tale of two cities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on the Black community. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that COVID-19 hospitalization rates among Blacks were about 4.7 times the rate of whites. Several factors came into play, including Blacks more likely to live in crowded living conditions, being essential workers, having a lack of access to proper health care and dealing with chronic health conditions.
Now that the COVID-19 vaccine has been available for several months, Blacks are now dealing with the pandemic of chaos: a toxic mixture of hesitancy, access to the vaccine and inadequate information. Tossing in the heightened threat of the Delta variant, getting Black people vaccinated is a race against time.
Why is the Black community less vaccinated?
Lower vaccination rates in the Black community likely has less to do with confidence in the vaccine’s effectiveness—but more to do with concerns around safety, a mistrust of motivations behind the endorsement of authorities, and barriers to access.
The reality is that initial mass vaccine sites, road-side pop-ups, hours-long lines, aggressive inter-borough vaccine-grabbing and steady vaccine tourism have been replaced by failed bribery attempt of vaccines for money, tickets, beer or food.
A survey funded by the Summit Medical Group Foundation (SMGF) in partnership with Mathematica found that in New Jersey, Black residents using and living near food pantries who had not yet been vaccinated had more issues with accessibility of the vaccine. Distrust of the medical profession is, of course, a driving factor.
“A lot of the people within the community quoted the Tuskegee experiment but didn’t really know much about what the Tuskegee experiment was, but they were quick to call it,” said SMGF Executive Director Julienne Cherry. “The world is slowly opening up and we rarely see anyone doing any COVID education. How do we go into our underserved Black and Brown communities and have a bigger impact? I’m starting to see the trend of our local leaders not having that conversation, because they too have a concern.”
So O’Neil, Mathematica’s director of health foundations, said respondents to the survey were concerned about safety and long term side effects that might result from taking the vaccine. But being able to even get it can be a challenge and experts say there have to be better methods.
“The ways to increase access include transportation to vaccine distribution centers, opening vaccination centers early and keeping them open late to accommodate work schedules, and supporting people who were primary caregivers,” O’Neil said. “The more people that get vaccinated, you’re left more and more with more hesitant people as well as people who are not able to get access.”
Back in New York City, the story of vaccine distribution is laid out by the City’s Health Department breaking it down by zip code. The lowest vaccination rates in the city are Black neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn and Southeast Queens with the areas seeing only up to 37% of residents fully vaccinated.
The neighborhood in the city with the lowest vaccination rate is Edgemere/Far Rockaway, Queens (11691), where only 34% of residents are fully vaccinated. The community, which is on the Rockaway Peninsula, is 44.9% Black. In Bedford-Stuyvesant (East)/Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn (11233), 36% of residents are fully vaccinated and Blacks make up 72% of the population there.
In Central Harlem (North) in Manhattan (10030) 42.6% of residents are fully vaccinated in the neighborhood where Blacks account for 56.5% of residents.
Dr. Nataha Williams, an assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine released a study about access to COVID-19 vaccination sites in Brooklyn. Williams and her colleagues found that there were substantial “vaccination access deserts” in Brooklyn neighborhoods with high poverty rates, especially in Brownsville and Ocean Hill.
“What we found is that access for the vaccines really wasn’t there in certain communities,” Williams told the AmNews. “In terms of communities that were predominantly Black and Latinx and communities where there are high thresholds of poverty, those communities were less likely to have access to a place where they could get the vaccine. The reasoning for that is really unknown to us.”
Dr. Kitaw Demissie of SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University says large disparities in parts of the city is what’s holding the city back to beat COVID. The uptick in cases due to the Delta variant is posing even more of a danger.
“Across the boroughs we see that the vaccination rate is much lower among African Americans, compared to the rest of the population,” Demissie said in an interview with the AmNews. “The population segments where the vaccination rate is much lower among African Americans communities and in some neighborhoods with low social status, the Delta can create a new pocket for an outbreak.”
But the disparities go beyond the numbers. Black neighborhoods experiencing low vaccination rates are a stone’s throw from white neighborhoods where vaccination rates are extremely high. For example, Edgemere/Far Rockaway is just miles away from Breezy Point on the other side of the peninsula where whites make up 91% of residents and are seeing a 78% vaccination rate.
In Central Harlem (South)/Morningside Heights/West Harlem (10027), where Blacks make up 34% of residents, the vaccination rate is 50%. In the next zip code south in Manhattan Valley/Morningside Heights/Upper West Side (10025), where whites make up 54% of the population, there’s a vaccination rate of over 70%.
Councilwoman Selvena Brooks-Powers, who represents the 31st district that includes Far Rockaway, told the AmNews that one zip code in her district saw one of the highest rates of COVID deaths in the city. There is only one hospital in her district that was completely overwhelmed at the height of the pandemic. Brooks-Powers said when the COVID vaccine came, her district was once again left behind.
“We saw that our community was not prioritized and that was problematic for me,” she said. “Access to quality healthcare has been something I’ve been advocating for quite some time. I feel that we were failed in a sense that we did not have vaccine sites available in our district. The first one that we got was late April/early May. I can’t tell you how seniors of color wanted the vaccine.”
Access is a major issue for people in the neighborhood who want to get vaccines. At one point in time, the closest place to get one in Far Rockaway was at York College, which is nine miles away and nearly an hour ride on public transportation.
Several pop-up vaccination sites have shown up but getting a shot is still a challenge. District 31 State Assemblymember Khaleel Anderson, whose area includes Far Rockaway and Arverne, said pop up sites don’t often give residents the ability to choose which of the three vaccines currently available they can get, creating more hesitancy.
For example, if a pop-up site is only offering the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which has been plagued by recent coverage of negative side effects, a person is less likely to get vaccinated.
Anderson told the AmNews that since the start of the pandemic, there’s been inequity from COVID testing to vaccinations.
“So many of the inequities that had already been embedded in the system and in our communities have simply been exacerbated,” Anderson said. “The healthcare system has worked for white upper middle-class people who live in Breezy Point. This is consistent with the pre-pandemic flu vaccination rates. It’s not a new phenomenon. What I’m doing is trying to work to actively expand access but also to expand information. People need to be able to have an information source that’s credible.”
What are the solutions?
What is the city and state doing to make sure the vaccine is being distributed equally and accessible to everyone? City Health Department First Deputy Commissioner and Chief Equity Officer Dr. Torian Easterling said it’s an issue that keeps him up every night. However, getting more Black New Yorkers vaccinated is not an issue of access, he says, but rather one of comfort.
“One of the things that we have really focused on is even if you have a [vaccine] site there could be a barrier of someone accessing that specific site,” Easterling told the AmNews. “We’ve been talking about using every opportunity for providers and pharmacists to make sure that they’re messaging to their patients about how they can get the vaccine. Even if your provider is not offering the vaccines, they can certainly help usher it.”
In a statement to the AmNews, New York State Health Department spokesperson Abigail Barker said that the state has administered 21.9 million vaccines at over 350 community-based pop-up sites. She said the state is doubling down in areas with low vaccination rates including administering in-home vaccinations
“We have continually increased efforts to bring shots to local and hard-to-reach communities, ensuring time-off for employees to receive the vaccine, paid sick leave for employees who experience symptoms from the vaccine, walk-in appointments at all state-run sites, creative vaccine incentive programs, and trusted community messengers, such as the NYS Vaccine Equity Taskforce and partnerships with houses of worship,” Barker said.
On the federal level, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the White House COVID Equity Task Force, said President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris made access to the vaccine for Black Americans a top priority.
“We’ve been addressing structural barriers like making sure there’s transportation, that there’s childcare for people, access to paid time off. All of that has been really essential. Also, making sure that people can get vaccinated in venues they trust.” Nunuz-Smith told the AmNews. “Gratefully we’re hearing less and less about people being unable to get vaccinated and more around issues of confidence where people are still deliberating and battling misinformation.”
Derrick Lane, chief marketing officer for BlackDoctor.org, said that the city, state and federal government need to support Black-owned companies, media outlets and organizations that have the ear of the community. He says doing so could make a difference in ending the COVID-19 pandemic or things getting worse.
“There’s already a distrust in the federal government, so why not let those who already speak to the Black community,” Lane said. “The federal government should provide resources behind those companies and those organizations to continue to speak to the Black community in the language and in the way that folks will understand and receive the information in a positive way.”
During the first week of August this year Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that shortly anyone who wants to eat inside a restaurant, go to the theater, or work out at the gym will be required to show proof of their COVID-19 vaccinations.
De Blasio said, “The only way to patronize these establishments indoors will be if you’re vaccinated… The goal here is to convince everyone that this is the time. If we’re going to stop the Delta variant, the time is now. And that means getting vaccinated right now.”