The horrific examples of the Tuskegee experiments and other racist malpractices at the hands of the medical establishment have seared the collective conscious of African Americans. Is it any wonder that surveys show they distrust the COVID-19 vaccines more than any other group?
The question of trust was put to Bishop Lionel Harvey of the First Baptist Cathedral of Westbury. He was present Jan. 9 as Nassau County Executive Laura Curran presided over the opening of the county’s second vaccination hub at the “Yes We Can” Community Center in the New Cassel section of Westbury.
The bishop is intimately familiar with the disease. It has afflicted his immediate family and killed half a dozen of his parishioners. In addition, he has, in his words, “stood over 50 caskets” of fellow clergy and other religious leaders in the greater metropolitan area victimized by the virus.
“What would you say to [minority] residents of Nassau County who might be wary and distrustful about getting the vaccine?” he was asked at the press conference.
Harvey replied, “We can’t dismiss the history that comes behind it. But what I will say is that the science has proven itself to be true. And when you weigh the balance, I would encourage everybody to take the vaccine. It’s been proven. When you look at the devastation in our communities, I would implore all of our black and brown people to take it. Because the health has to be the primary concern, and I think the science dictates that the vaccine is going to be good. COVID kills, and it’s killed a disproportional number of people in our communities.”
He added, “I would implore all the people that can to get this vaccine to get back to a sense of normalcy and to get back to life as we know it.”
He noted that he would take the vaccine himself when eligible.
Harvey works for the county’s Office of Minority Affairs.
The bishop concluded, “New Cassel is a community that has been underserved, that has faced this tragic virus in such a wonderful way with their heads up, and now the help is come, the calvary is here. And we’re all going to take this vaccine and get back to normal.”
In response to a question, Curran made a direct link between the hub’s placement amidst one of the county’s hardest hit areas and with a majority minority population.
“We are really emphasizing equitable distribution and distribution in black and brown communities,” she said. “We want to make this accessible to everyone in New Cassel, especially those who have historically found health care difficult to access.”
Town of North Hempstead Councilwoman Viviana Russell reiterated that New Cassel, where she lives, has been a center of the epidemic, and people “have contracted the virus in outrageous numbers. So to have this vaccination center in New Cassel means a lot to this community and those in the surrounding communities.”
She added, “We are looking forward to a time when we can go back to doing things normally and having this pod here will help us do that.”
Nassau County Legislator Siela Bynoe of Westbury also represents the area.
She thanked the federal and state partners for providing the vaccines and Curran for working with the town “to ensure that this pod was set here in the backyards of essential workers, frontline workers who have borne the brunt of this pandemic. It’s not lost on me that we’re here in a community that has been devastated, ravaged by this disease. This is a center where we normally have young people playing and enjoying all the accommodations here. But today, we hand it over to the county health department to ensure that each member of this community has an opportunity to be vaccinated against this horrific disease.”
State Senator Anna Kaplan stated, “You can see by the elected officials standing here how important it is for us. We want to make sure that there is an equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.”
She urged residents to keep checking websites to make sure they are up to date as far as eligibility. Visit https://covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov/covid-19-vaccine-tracker to get updates on the state vaccination efforts. Visit https://am-i-eligible.covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov to see if you qualify.
A press release by the county noted, “New York State continues to expand the criteria for who can receive the COVID-19 vaccine. For regular updates on who is currently eligible for the vaccine under New York State’s guidance and to make an appointment, residents can visit the county’s vaccine website at www.nassaucountyny.gov/vaccine. Only those who meet the criteria can make an appointment at this time. The vaccine will be provided for free regardless of insurance or immigration status.”
According to Curran, more county-run distribution sites will be coming.
“This is just the beginning of our effort to ramp up vaccination, especially by making sure all communities have equitable access,” she said. “Especially those that have been hardest hit by this pandemic: black and brown and minority communities.”
Curran, as usual, opened the press conference with the latest coronavirus stats in the county, including the positivity rate, hospitalizations and deaths.
“The main focus remains on containing this virus,” she said. “But we’re also working full speed on getting the vaccine into as many arms as possible.”
Curran was happy to announce that two days hence (Jan. 11), Governor Andrew Cuomo would open up eligibility, and add seniors over 75, police, firefighters, bus drivers and transit workers to the eligibility list (see below).
“I’m really glad the governor has listened to so many voices that more need access to this vaccine,” Curran said. “As we get doses, we will give them out. We have used 100 percent of the doses that we have received. We have not wasted one dose in Nassau County. We will continue to do that [and] work with state partners to get as many residents vaccinated as possible.”
The county executive praised Nassau County Health Commissioner Dr. Larry Eisenstein, the county’s Medical Reserve Corps and Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health for their cooperation.
“They’ve been tasked by the governor for coordinating this effort,” she said of Northwell.
She also expressed special thanks to Councilwoman Russell and Town of North Hempstead Judi Bosworth for partnering with the county on this special occasion.
“It will administer vaccines seven days a week,” she said of the two sites. “Vaccination is key to defeating COVID-19. It is important to note that we are reliant on supplies of vaccine from the federal government and NYS. We will get the vaccine out as quickly as we get them in.”
The center was the second vaccination site opened by the county in conjunction with Northwell Health. It had unveiled another one at Nassau Community College days before.
Eisenstein observed, “When we have enough vaccines we think we can do 500 at each site per day. And we’re just two sites. As the governor revealed, pharmacies, private doctors’ offices [will also give vaccines], there will be numerous sites. What’s most important is where we’re doing them and the population that we’re reaching. We’ve got to make sure that we do it equitably. We have to reach communities that we know are at risk, and we have to do everything that we can to make sure that we protect everybody.”
Curran added, “It is possible that we will have more demand than supply. We want to do everything possible to prevent that from happening. We’re working with our partners at the state to make sure that we get adequate supply. We know that the need is large. We want to be able to meet that need.”
A reporter quoted a statement from Governor Cuomo that at the current rate of vaccination, it will take 47 weeks to vaccinate 70 percent of the population.
“We’ve only been at it four weeks,” Eisenstein replied. “There was only one product, the Pfizer vaccine, in the first week. Then [the] Moderna [vaccine] the second week. We know that the amount of product the pharmaceuticals are coming out with is expanding. We also know that in the upcoming weeks, a third and fourth product are expected to receive approval. And so, we are putting them out as fast as we receive them. We hope that the federal government will be releasing a whole it more to us. But I think our pharmaceutical companies are working 24/7 to get as much vaccine out as possible.”
Though the slow rollout of the vaccine was noted, Eisenstein expressed confidence that this obstacle will be overcome.
“It’s still my positive thought that late in spring, anybody who wants a vaccine should be able to get it,” he affirmed. “I think we can have a relatively normal summer if all goes well.”
In response to the news of new variations in the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Eisenstein replied, “It’s no surprise that the virus mutates, this was expected,” and added that his department was investigating the case of the UK variant in Massapequa.
“There is a chance that this variant may become the dominant one on Long Island,” Eisenstein observed. “We are not panicked about this. We have the vaccine. It’s just a matter of getting it out as quickly as possible. And for those people whose turn isn’t yet to get the vaccine, just do what you’re doing and you’ll be fine.”
Added Curran, “And remember, Dr. Larry is an epidemiologist, so he knows what he’s talking about.”
Leonard Pogensky of Westbury said he and his wife Gloria got their shots at “Yes We Can” on Jan. 16 and he called the process “very efficient.”
“The appointment was at 1 p.m. A friendly reception by Nassau County Police Department. The check-in and monitoring by the Nassau County Department of Health was smooth,” he wrote in an email. “We were professionally inoculated by 1:30 p.m., we rested 15 minutes and were out the door at 1:45 p.m.”
He added that “there was no pain, no strain and no complications next day for Gloria or me. Before we left we were given a ‘COVID-19 VACCINATION RECORD CARD’ with date and name of product, Moderna. We also got a slip informing us that we will be contacted with info on the second dose approximately one week before the scheduled appointment. Subsequently, we received an email informing us that the second dose will given us 28 days after first dose.”
Richard Cardozo of Salisbury also got an appointment at the community center, and wrote in an email, “By chance I got my shot there today (Jan. 21). I could not believe how well organized, quick, and efficient it was—and how nice all of the people were.”