NEW YORK — Diamond Wright says she won’t get the Covid-19 vaccine.
The 33-year-old housing worker lost her grandfather to the virus last year. Her neighbors in New York’s Far Rockaway died at a rate nearly 50 percent higher than the rest of the city during the height of the pandemic. And the Delta variant is raising anew the specters of spring 2020. But none of that has changed her mind.
“Me, personally, I’m not gonna get it,” she said of the vaccine last week. “It’s something new. They came up with it kinda fast.”
She’s not alone.
Wright’s neighborhood, on the eastern edge of the Rockaway Peninsula in Southeast Queens, has the lowest vaccination rate in New York City: As of Friday, almost 39 percent of residents in the 11691 ZIP code have had at least one dose and about 34 percent are fully vaccinated. Citywide, those numbers are about 61 percent and 55 percent, respectively, according to health department data.
As the Delta variant surges across New York and politicians push harder to increase vaccinations, the slow progress in Far Rockaway is illustrative of the challenges public health officials are facing across the nation. Resistance to vaccines isn’t just ideological or geographical — and it isn’t just happening in places that avoided the worst of Covid.
In Far Rockaway, where death seemed inescapable last year as New York become the global center of the outbreak, a shortage of resources is partially to blame. The ZIP code, for example, won’t be included in a new $15 million state program to encourage holdouts to get their shots. But a wariness of official information is also discouraging the mostly Black neighborhood from getting inoculated.
Wright echoed what many others in Far Rockaway and nearby Edgemere told POLITICO in more than a dozen interviews in recent weeks: They don’t believe the vaccine is safe. They cited a range of reasons for their skepticism — from the infamous Tuskegee experiment, to a wait-and-see mentality, to a general distrust of government after centuries of abuse, racism and systemic inequality in health care in New York and around the country.
Wright says she’s not tempted by the city’s new $100 vaccination incentive nor the surfeit of evidence showing the vaccine’s effectiveness; she says she’s too put off after an acquaintance experienced side effects from the shot.
“A lot of people are scared,” Wright said.
Far Rockaway, like many communities of color throughout New York City, suffers from a yawning gap in resources that has come to the fore during the pandemic: it’s served by a single subway line; fresh produce is hard to come by; roughly 20 percent of households don’t have internet access; in March, the state proposed cuts that would eviscerate St. John’s, the peninsula’s only hospital.
Annette Ervin, a retired federal employee, grew up in the beachside enclave and belongs to the minority of her neighbors who were willing to get a vaccine. But she said the city didn’t make it easy, giving its vaccination outreach effort a rating of two out of 10.
“And I’m being generous,” said Ervin, who took a bus to a different part of Queens to get her jab. “You don’t see any fliers anywhere … Word of mouth is a great thing, but if it’s not getting out there, no one’s gonna know.”
In March of 2020, Far Rockaway recorded the first Covid-19 case in Queens. The area and neighboring Edgemere were particularly hard hit at the height of the pandemic; one in seven there have been diagnosed with Covid, and 535 have died.
But the lack of resources and lack of faith in the government have conspired to depress vaccination levels, despite the grim statistics.
“The lack of information is why people miss out on things, because they are not doing the proper outreach in order to inform folks that this is out here,” said Jazmine Outlaw, executive director of the Rockaway Youth Task Force. “People just don’t have access to the information. They don’t trust a lot of the information that’s given out. It’s hard to trust when the history has been what it’s been.”
As outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio was extolling the benefits of his new vaccination mandates on Thursday, his would-be successor, Eric Adams, and local Queens leaders were in Far Rockaway begging residents to get vaccinated.
“This is a matter of life and death, simply. For those of you who do not have your vaccines, this is not about you now. It is not the time to be selfish,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said. “It’s here, the vaccines are in your backyard. Take advantage of it. I was going to give a very diplomatic speech this morning, but I can’t because you are putting people’s lives at risk by not getting the vaccine.”
But he and others acknowledged the broader historical inequities at play and the particular difficulties faced by Far Rockaway residents when it comes to access. Richards also pointed out that there has been a great deal of misinformation circulating about the vaccine within the community.
“At the end of the day, government knew that 11691 was the second deadliest ZIP code, yet we were not prioritized for testing or vaccines,” City Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers said. “Right now, we are operating from a deficit. We were already behind because we didn’t have access … Now we have it, and so we need that time now to be able to catch up.”
Racism and inequality in American health care are not new phenomena for people of color, especially African Americans. Black and brown people have been dying of Covid-19 at much higher rates than white people, and are now being vaccinated at much lower ones. Just 32 percent of Black city residents are fully vaccinated, the lowest rate of any demographic group.
“I think minority folks have a general mistrust of systems, because the systems in this country are oppressive,” said Dustin Duncan, associate professor of epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. “We’re not seeing anything that’s new or surprising here. All the disparities, everything that we talk about in our classes and our academic scholarship … it is playing out exactly as we expect, as the system was built. It’s unfortunate and it’s sad.”
City and state fall short
A $15 million program announced last month by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for community-based organizations to promote vaccinations in 117 hard-hit ZIP codes across the state won’t include Far Rockaway and Edgemere. It will, however, include the whiter, more affluent area of Belle Harbor-Neponsit and Rockaway Park, further west on the peninsula. That ZIP code has less than a third of the population, fewer Covid cases and deaths, and a significantly higher vaccination rate of 53 percent.
“I don’t think it’s not considered the most vulnerable if it’s not listed. It just wasn’t in the initial highest priority need list,” Cuomo spokesperson Jordan Bennett said when asked why the 11691 zip code was omitted. He added that the 117 ZIP codes were “identified as the highest immediate need” based on percent of vaccinated population and positive Covid-19 case rates over the past two weeks “to help these organizations initially focus their efforts.”
As of July 31, Far Rockaway-Edgemere has a positive case rate of 93 per 100,000 people versus 106 in Belle Harbor-Neponsit and 115 citywide, according to health department data. But those stats belie the long-term effects Covid-19 has wrought on Far Rockaway.
“Of course [the funding] is going all the way down there,” Outlaw said when asked about the funding allocation. “You get down here [and] we’re not getting that information.”
Far Rockaway has just a half dozen permanent vaccination locations, as de Blasio says efforts will pivot away from such brick and mortar sites in favor of a mobile approach. But not a single pop-up vaccination site appears to have been listed in the area between July 17 through Aug. 1 — and it’s remained the lowest vaccinated section of the city even though 40-plus pop-up sites have been held in the locale since May.
Earlier this week, state Sen. James Sanders Jr. sent a letter to the mayor — cosigned by Richards, Brooks-Powers and Assemblymember Khaleel Anderson — expressing his “sincere concern” about the situation after a city vaccine van failed to show up at a community event in Bayswater Park attended by hundreds.
“We called them and said that they should be here,” a frustrated Sanders said at the event on Saturday.
“This is inexcusable,” he added in the letter to de Blasio. “Let’s not miss any more opportunities to save lives.”
A pop-up the same day at a family event in neighboring Arverne vaccinated just 16 people in four hours.
“It’s an OK day,” said the woman running the booth, which was organized by the city and a third-party group, Zeel.
Patrick Gallahue, a spokesperson for the city health department, said he was unsure exactly how the Bayswater Park mix-up occurred but it was likely due to the van being requested too late. He said the area “has been prioritized for additional outreach and resources from the beginning.”
The department has conducted tens of thousands of door knocks, phone banking attempts and text messages as part of the vaccination outreach in Far Rockaway and three surrounding neighborhoods, in addition to five pop-up sites deployed this week.
“There is a lot of effort to get out, to make sure that those questions are answered,” Gallahue said. “Access is not limited to access to the vaccine, with locations like this. It’s also about access to government personnel who can answer those questions that they may have.”
For residents of Far Rockaway the lack of attention is nothing new. Outlaw’s youth task force was founded in 2011, a year before Superstorm Sandy devastated the peninsula.
“For Sandy to come and then for the pandemic to hit, it really left a lot of people vulnerable,” she said. “It was hard for everyone, but especially out here in this community where there is lack of access to food, there’s a lack of access to health care. The health disparities out here are tremendous.”
Melody Goodman, associate professor of biostatistics at the NYU School of Global Public Health, said she wasn’t surprised to hear that the community’s vaccination rates are so behind the rest of the city’s.
“We treat Far Rockaway as if it is far because that gives us a reason for why we haven’t made investments in that space,” said Goodman, herself a Queens native. “But it’s not that far.”
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