BY CONNOR WALTER
Removing barriers for minority groups and eliminating skepticism pertaining to the COVID-19 vaccine were two of many topics discussed in a virtual town hall hosted by Bronx/Queens Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Tuesday, Feb. 9.
Ocasio-Cortez, who has received the vaccine herself, told residents of the community that the vaccine is very safe and effective. New York currently has 13 mass vaccination sites including the Aqueduct Racetrack and Citi Field locations in Queens.
Ocasio-Cortez opened the town hall by providing an update regarding vaccine availability. Community health centers that decide to opt in will receive federal doses of the vaccine when they become available, she said.
The federal health department will also partner with large pharmacies to get vaccines straight to the pharmacy for easy access. This action is part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which the Biden Administration issued earlier this week.
Joining Ocasio-Cortez during the town hall was Ruth Hassell-Thompson, who serves as one of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s special advisors, and NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi.
Throughout the pandemic, systemic health and social inequities have brought negative impacts on minorities and, while Hassell-Thompson explained that there have been inconsistencies between races in treating COVID-19, she does not believe it will not happen with the vaccine rollout.
“Our communities traditionally underserved by the health care system have been most hard hit by COVID, and we said from the start that we won’t allow these disparities to persist in our distribution of our vaccine,” Hassell-Thompson said. “Removing the barriers to vaccination, dispelling myths about it and ensuring there is equitable distribution of the vaccine across the state are our main objectives.”
Hassell-Thompson currently serves as special advisor for policy and community affairs of New York State Homes and Community Renewal. She is responsible for developing and protecting affordable housing and protecting vulnerable communities. As a retired nurse, she understands the impact COVID-19 has had on people’s health.
“This is the latest governmental operation in our lifetime,” Hassell-Thompson said.
Dr. Chokshi, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Feb. 3, closed out the town hall with an important message — despite the vaccine rollout, COVID-19 is still a threat, he said. He also believes that securing trust and providing science-based information is the best course of action to lower skepticism in individuals who are hesitant to engage with the vaccine.
“We aim to have a vaccination campaign that is safe, swift and equitable,” Chokshi said.
The New York Health Department has also made vaccination data as transparent as possible. To aid in ensuring that the vaccine rollout is equitable, they publish statistics on race and ethnicity groups receiving vaccinations regularly.
During the Q&A portion of the town hall, one member raised an important question related to the difficulty of securing an appointment for public school students and staff. Both Ocasio-Cortez and Dr. Chokshi responded, saying that access to the vaccine is expected to expand in the coming days because keeping students in class and employees at work is vital.
Ocasio-Cortez will provide an update in another town hall next month.