With infection rates of the aggressive and highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant on the rise, Queens Borough President Donovan Richards with Brooklyn Borough President and Democratic candidate for NYC Mayor Eric Adams held a press conference at the city-run vaccination hub on Beach 39th Street in Edgemere on Aug. 5 to urge residents to get vaccinated.
Surrounded by public health leaders, community advocates and elected officials — including state Senator James Sanders, Assemblyman Khaleel Anderson and Councilwoman Selvena Brooks-Powers — Richards and Adams addressed the low vaccination rate not only in Edgemere but across the Rockaway Peninsula, which was one of the hardest-hit areas during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The vaccination rate in ZIP code 11691, which encompasses Edgemere and Far Rockaway, was the lowest in New York City as of Aug. 3. Only 38.62 percent of eligible area residents have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, while the total number of Queens residents who have received at least one vaccine dose is 66 percent.
Elected officials and health leaders urged the vaccine-hesitant to get the lifesaving shot to protect themselves and their community from the delta variant.
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards reminded everyone to think back to the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when St. Johns Episcopal Hospital had to store the victims of the pandemic in refrigerated trucks outside the hospital because the morgue was filled to capacity.
“Think about those health care workers who put their lives on the line who showed up to work every day, who might have transmitted COVID to their own family members to save people’s lives and this community,” Richards said.
Richards noted that it’s a “pivotal moment in this fight” and that getting the vaccine was a matter of life and death.
He stressed, “Reminder, Far Rockaway shut down. Reminder, bodies upon bodies at our hospital. Reminder, people sick within their homes. Reminder, children having to learn on Zoom.”
Richards had a strong message for those who haven’t been inoculated.
“This is not about you now. It is not the time to be selfish,” Richards said. “This is about making sure that our children can get back into the schools in September and learn. This is about protecting your neighbor. This is about protecting your family members.”
More than 8,000 Queens residents have died of COVID-19. The pandemic highlighted the healthcare inequity in several areas in the borough, including Far Rockaway — one of the most underserved areas in New York City.
Democratic candidate for NYC Mayor Eric Adams said elected leaders and community advocates fought hard to ensure that residents on the peninsula have access to vaccination sites.
“They have fought to make sure that we can have not only stationary locations like we have here but also the mobile locations,” Adams said. “They have been extremely creative of saying, ‘Let’s meet people where they are so that we can remove the barriers that are preventing people from receiving their vaccine.'”
Adams pointed to the pre-existing fears in Black and Brown communities surrounding vaccinations, but said it was time to put the mistrust behind and mobilize.
“It’s about our families, our friends, those frontline workers. We must really get the message out about vaccinations and getting vaccinated,” Adams said. “We can’t go back to the days when trailers were filled with bodies, on top of bodies. I remember those days, and it was one of the most traumatic experiences.”
Richards and Adams also announced a new city partnership that builds on the NYC Vaccine Referral Bonus program in an effort to ramp up vaccinations.
The partnership incentivizes local businesses to refer patrons and community members for vaccination through $100 payments, adding to the existing $100 vaccination incentive.
Additionally, canvassing events in small business corridors in Brooklyn and Queens are planned to inform local business owners of the $100 incentive and the influential role they can play as community anchors in advocating for their customers to get vaccinated.
Elected officials and health care professionals agreed that it was a matter of getting the message out that the vaccines are safe and effective.
Dr. Torian Easterling, first deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, urged those who are vaccinated to educate those still ambivalent about the vaccine.
“Share your story. Let your family member, let your friends know that these vaccines are safe. We need your voice,” Easterling said, adding that the single most important factor they’ve seen turn the tide on vaccine hesitancy is conversations.
Dr. Frank Proscia, president of the Doctor’s Council SEIU, said the COVID-19 vaccine was the miracle doctors hoped for while holding the hands of dying patients during the height of the pandemic. Referring to the rise in infections with the delta variant, he said the pandemic was now the pandemic of the unvaccinated.
“Unvaccinated individuals currently comprise 97 percent of all hospitalized patients for COVID and people that are getting sick,” he said. “As we approach this critical time in the pandemic response, it is so vital that the future of New York City is held in the balance of trying to achieve enough people being vaccinated to stop COVID in its tracks.”
State Senator James Sanders addressed the spread of vaccine misinformation on social media and suggested that the Department of Homeland Security should look into it.
“It’s not that these folk are less rational than anyone else,” Sanders said about those who put more trust in social media than scientists. “It is that they are being targeted, and we as Americans need to stand up to Russia or whoever else is targeting these people and say this is not going to stand.”
Renee Hastick-Motes, vice president of External Affairs of St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, lost her father to COVID-19 last year and had to watch him get his last rites on an iPad.
She shared that St. John’s Episcopal, the only hospital on the peninsula, has extended the hours of the patient express center to accommodate residents coming home late from work.
“We have to understand that this virus is something that can take our lives,” Hastick-Motes said.
Assemblyman Anderson was frustrated that it was still necessary to “remind folks how critical and important it is to get vaccinated,” when many Far Rockaway residents lost their lives to COVID-19.
While he said that it was important to acknowledge the reasons for the vaccine hesitancy, he urged residents “to stop using spaces like The Shade Room, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, as spaces of information where we have ‘expert’ that can provide that information based on knowledge.”
“There is no microchip. There’s no third-world conspiracy,” Anderson said. “Get vaccinated to help protect our communities. So we can get back to a somewhat normal life and society so you can enjoy the regular normal activities of your everyday life without having to wear a mask.”
Councilwoman Brooks-Powers encouraged residents to call 311 to find the nearest pop-up vaccination site or to go to one of the three permanent vaccination sites at The Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center, St. Johns Episcopal Hospital or Beach 39th Street.
“From the very beginning, I have said that the road to recovery will include this vaccine. The road to recovery will rest on the community’s response and what we do as a community to keep ourselves safe,” Brooks-Powers said. “And so as new mandates are coming out, I do not want our community to be shut out.”