State officials joined community representatives to host a pop-up coronavirus vaccine site at the Gateway Christian Center in Valley Stream on Feb. 23. According to state officials, 250 people ages 65 and older from Valley Stream and Elmont were able to receive shots.
Officials noted the importance of using local community hubs such as churches to reach residents who might be overlooked in the vaccination effort or who might distrust the vaccines’ safety.
“I think the closer that we can get to communities in order to administer the vaccine, the better we are,” Tracey Edwards, the NAACP’s Long Island regional director, said. “This is a place in the community that people know and trust.”
While mass vaccination sites at hospitals, colleges and stadiums are good for the overall vaccination campaign, Edwards said, efforts at smaller centers can help alleviate some of the apprehension many people may have about getting vaccinated.
Experts have said that communities of color, particularly Black communities, are prone to distrust medicine because of a history of abuse by the American medical system. According to state vaccination figures, only 5 percent of people on Long Island who have received at least one vaccine dose are African-American. In Valley Stream and Elmont, 34 and 47 percent of the neighborhoods’ respective populations are Black, according to 2019 census data.
The Rev. Sunny Philip, pastor at the Gateway Christian Center, said that while he was ineligible himself for the vaccine because of stents that he has near his heart, he was happy to open his church to the state for the vaccine effort.
He recounted an instance in which he spoke with a prominent leader of color and military veteran in his congregation, who at 70 years old had initially expressed skepticism about the vaccine.
“I said, ‘This is for your sake; this is for your health, your future. You should go take it,’” Philip recalled of the conversation. “Finally, he did.”
Elmont resident Wanda Holt, who received her first vaccine dose at the pop-up site, said she had tried for two months to make an appointment, to no avail. She said she had tried a handful of times to get one through the state vaccination website, but slots were never available.
“It was always filled up,” she said.
Finally, she reached out to State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, whose office was doing outreach for the Gateway clinic. Kaminsky’s office was able to secure 100 appointments, including one for Holt.
Like other pop-up vaccination sites across the state, appointments there were mostly given out through outreach by local officials or the church itself.
“It’s incredibly important that outreach be done to make sure everyone has access to the vaccine,” Kaminsky said. “Not everyone can be on the internet, not everyone is computer literate or has a computer, and we have to make sure our vulnerable New Yorkers have equal access, and that’s why pop-up clinics like this are so important.”
Christine Waters, a Freeport resident and chairwoman of education for the New York State NAACP, who offered to be photographed receiving the vaccine, said it was important to get the message out that the inoculations are safe.
A cancer survivor, she said, “If I can survive those radiation treatments, I can survive this.”
Karim Camara, executive director for the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based Community Development Services, which organized Tuesday’s event, said pop-up vaccination sites through churches were his agency’s chief concern at the moment. They are an effort, he said, to ensure that disparities in the health system do not continue through the vaccination effort.
“Our task is to make sure vulnerable and underserved communities are not left behind,” he said.
Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, a Democrat from Elmont, said her office had fielded a number calls from residents frustrated, sometimes to the point of tears, that they were unable to receive a vaccine appointment. It was through such clinics that disadvantaged residents in the communities in her district might get a shot.
“Covid-19 has devastated the Valley Stream and Elmont communities,” she said. “We know that, disproportionally, communities of color, low-income communities, were greatly impacted. So when we talk about providing hope, today is what that’s going to stand for, hope of an injection for our communities.”