BY SHAELEIGH SEVERINO
About a week ago, I walked around some of the neighborhoods in my district, hoping to talk to my community about how they’re holding up right now. The streets were as quiet as I’ve seen them since the pandemic began. It felt as if my whole community was suspended in motion, waiting for a light at the end of the tunnel.
Right now, that light seems very far away.
District 32 — which encapsulates southeast Queens — is currently experiencing the highest COVID-19 infection rates in New York City. In neighborhoods like Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park, testing is revealing rates of 18 percent or higher. Local hospitals are reaching their capacity, with St. John’s Episcopal reporting 83 percent bed occupancy just last week.
But numbers can’t tell the whole story. This virus has hit us like a vengeful bomb and every new infection, every new death is more than just a number; it’s a quiet tragedy adding its weight to the growing burden on the communities and neighborhoods I have called home my entire life.
On my walk, I met an older, retired man in Howard Beach. Standing six feet from his door, I listened as he told me through his mask about his battle with COVID, a battle he had to fight alone as no one in his family lived close enough to be with him. A woman in Ozone Park told me her husband’s bout with the virus had left him jobless, struggling with a heart condition, and buried under the weight of copays and medications he can’t afford.
Other stories hit even closer to home. One of my best friends lost her mother to COVID a few months ago and had to drop out of school to take care of her little brother. Another friend who works as a store clerk has contracted the virus three times, but with rent due and bills to pay he has no choice but to keep working, trying his best to keep himself safe.
We are in the middle of a crisis. My neighbors and friends are getting sick, losing their jobs and their savings, and some of them — far too many of them — are losing their lives. We have to act now. We need to vaccinate our most vulnerable, drive down infection rates, provide PPE and essential materials to small businesses and get this virus under control.
So here’s a question for my mayor, my City Council, and my city: where are you? Our community has long been neglected, and as this pandemic continues to sweep across the district we are once again left crying out for help, unsure if anyone is listening.
We need to ramp up testing and contact tracing throughout southeast Queens, establishing both permanent and mobile testing sites across the district. No one should have to travel longer than 30 minutes — or spend over 30 minutes waiting outside in the cold — to get tested. We need to equip sites with rapid tests so people can get the information they need as fast as possible. Nearly a year into this pandemic, why is testing still so scattered and unreliable?
We need to expand vaccine distribution to areas being hardest hit by the virus. While tiers and schedules are important, we must prioritize neighborhoods and communities with the highest infection rates. If elected officials are so quick to shut down our businesses and our schools, why aren’t they just as quick to inoculate the residents of our district?
We need to empower our neighborhood boards and organizations to have more of a say in how we deal with this crisis. The South Queens Women’s March Organization and The Ozone Park Block Association have been calling for more testing and vaccination sites for weeks now, but their demands have continuously gone unheard. Why aren’t our city officials listening to us?
Due to issues with the national stockpile, the city ran out of vaccines last weekend and it looks like more delays are coming. Distribution sites have been set up and quickly shut down. New York is going days and days without a single shot administered. How is this possible?
While I have nothing but questions for my city officials, I have a message for my friends and neighbors, those who’ve shared their stories with me and those whose stories I’ve yet to hear: stay strong and stay safe. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Social distance and avoid groups. While our leaders continue to struggle, delay and point fingers at each other, we can take matters into our own hands by doing everything possible to protect ourselves.
Our communities and neighborhoods have a long history of resilience and perseverance, from the top of Richmond Hill to the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula and everywhere in between. It’s up to us to write our own story now: one where we come together as a community, beat this horrible virus and move forward stronger and more unified than before.
Shaeleigh Severino is an advocate, community organizer and candidate for New York City Council, District 32 in Queens. Several neighborhoods in her district — including Ozone Park and Richmond Hill — are currently experiencing the highest infection rates in New York City.