By Lisa Autz
At the height of the back-to-school vaccination rush and in a month dedicated to spreading immunization awareness, the city Department of Health is shutting down the only free-immunization clinic in Queens next week.
Closures at both the Corona, Queens and Tremont, Bronx health centers are scheduled to take place at the crucial time before children need the required immunizations to attend school. The families depending on these services must make their way to the Fort Greene Health Center in Greenpoint, Brooklyn starting Aug. 21.
District Council 37, state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst), Commissioner on the Public’s Health System Anthony Feliciano, and other community leaders gathered at the Corona Clinic Wednesday to protest what they called “a threat to public health and safety.” The threat came without warning or community input, according to District Council 37.
Union members asked clinic-goers at the 34- 33 Junction Blvd. location to sign a petition to help keep the borough’s only immunization clinic open.
Pilar Burgas, a Corona resident, signed the petition and expressed concern for her neighborhood’s health needs.
“This is a poor neighborhood. We need this facility for our residents. I’m a taxpayer, I pay for this clinic to be open. It’s ridiculous to say there is not enough funding,” said Burgus.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has issued a response saying the agency has decided to “restructure and consolidate services to preserve essential functions and reduce overall cost of operations.”
DOH also said “in addition to the Fort Greene Health Center (in Brooklyn) remaining open five days a week, there are 22 primary providers in Queens that provide free or low-cost immunizations. No staff will be laid off as a result of this.”
Judith Arroyo, the president of the union that represents public health nurses at DC 37, questioned whether the 22 primary providers claimed by the DOH have the capacity and diverse language translations needed to accommodate the residents of Queens.
The Corona Health Clinic has been in operation since 1939 and administers vaccine services for Hepatitis B, Diphteria, tetanus, and pertussis, measles, mumps and all the shots needed for a child to attend city public schools. In 2012, the Corona Clinic administered 4,286 children with vaccines and nearly 8,000 MMR, 6,600 Hepatitis-B and 3,700 flu vaccines, according to DC 37.
School nurses, such as PS/IS 270’s Sharon Braxton, stressed that the public health issue is also an education issue.
“I refer many of the children to this clinic and often have them back in school the same day,” said Baxton. “If the children do not have their vaccinations, the principal, according to the Department of Education, must exclude them from school. We want to keep the kids in school.”
The closures are part of a series of cutbacks made by the DOH, which has reduced the number of seasonal contracted nurses and immunization teams that were designed to alternate between the different clinics in the city.
Peralta sent a letter to Mayor Bloomberg addressing his concerns over the closure of both the Corona and Tremont Health Centers and demanding a copy of the closure plan which he deemed “unacceptable.”
At a minimum, the community demanded better communication with the DOH when it comes to the health and safety of its people.
“It is appalling that the communities reliant on vital resources like immunization clinics have not been consulted. We need a change in the current top down approach to setting health priorities to a more consultive and open process,” said Feliciano.