We visited a pop-up vaccine clinic in a New York neighborhood that was once a COVID-19 hotspot. Some residents say they're having trouble taking off work to get the shot, while others still don't trust the city's commitment to the community.

·6 min read
sunnyside pop up vaccine clinic
Jackie Lopez, who leads the COVID Free Queens Coalition at Sunnyside Community Services Allana Akhtar/Business Insider
  • Here's what it was like inside a one-day pop-up vaccine site at Sunnyside Community Services in NYC.

  • Walk-in vaccine recipients preferred the Pfizer vaccine over the Johnson & Johnson shot.

  • Workers are providing information on vaccines through town halls and text messages.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Leaders at Sunnyside Community Services, a non-profit center that serves neighborhoods in Queens, New York City, are well aware of the devastating toll COVID-19 has had on their community.

The coronavirus disease had killed more Queens residents than any other borough as of March 2020, when New York City became an epicenter of the pandemic. Queens has the second-highest death rate from COVID-19 among the five boroughs, according to the most recent city data.

In the area of Queens that encompasses Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Woodside, 1 in 12 people have had COVID-19 and 1 in 137 have died, according to The New York Times.

At a one-day pop-up vaccine clinic in New York City's Sunnyside Community Services, workers said community members coming in to get a shot gave them hope about the COVID-19 pandemic's end, but they will still work hard to ensure no vulnerable member gets left behind.

Jackie Lopez, who leads the COVID Free Queens Coalition at Sunnyside Community Services, told Insider though she feels hopeful about entering a new post-COVID era, she urged federal and state agencies to keep in mind how vulnerable communities have low vaccination rates.

Read more: From guaranteeing full-time work to giving out gas cards, the shorthanded home-care industry is pulling out all the stops to hire more caregivers

Lopez said she's heard community members say they can't get a vaccine because they can't take days off work if they have side effects. Black and Latino adults have a lower rate of vaccination than the average, according to the University of Minnesota. A volunteer team with the Association of American Medical Colleges said low-income neighborhoods have less access to vaccines, and these residents struggle with navigating the online sign-up processes.

"Our Black and brown communities, our immigrant communities were hit the hardest by the pandemic and we still have work to do to provide accessibility and continue to provide information," Lopez said.

Inside a pop-up vaccine clinic in one of the hardest hit areas of COVID-19

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A check-in station at the pop-up vaccine clinic at Sunnyside Community Services on May 17. Allana Akhtar/Business Insider

On May 27, VIP StarNetwork, an on-demand health services company primarily for entertainment industry workers, hosted a one-day pop-up vaccine clinic at Sunnyside Community Services for one day. The May 27 pop-up vaccine site was Sunnyside Community Services' first, and the organization has scheduled second-dose appointments for June 17.

Johonniuss Chemweno, the CEO of VIP StarNetwork, said the group has been working with the state government to bring pop-up clinics to diverse and low-income communities. VIP StarNetwork, which had been approved as a mass vaccination provider by a federal agency in February, had previously enforced COVID-19 safety protocols for Netflix and Amazon studios.

The pop-up vaccine clinic had a team of more than a dozen nurses ready to help walk-in visitors get a vaccine. The site allowed all adults and people aged 12 to 18 to get a Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Chemweno told Insider he's seen an uptick in people under 18 coming into pop-up vaccine sites. The US began inoculating teenagers with the Pfizer vaccine in May.

Recipients were allowed to choose which vaccine they got depending on availability, Chemweno said.

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Valentina Valencia, an emergency medical technician, and Sofia Mejia, a registered nurse check-in community members for their vaccine jabs. Allana Akhtar/Business Insider

Nada Elrakaivy, a COVID Free Queens Coalition outreach specialist, told Insider many community members have been hesitant about receiving a Johnson & Johnson vaccine after the CDC reported a rare blood clot had been linked to six vaccine recipients. The welcome sign outside the vaccine clinic noted noted that the site had Pfizer vaccines, and two community members asked specifically for the Pfizer vaccine when entering the pop-up site.

Community members entered Sunnyside Community Services and checked-in with Valentina Valencia, an emergency medical technician, and Sofia Mejia, a registered nurse. The two said they had enjoyed "giving back to the community that needs it" through working at with Sunnyside Community services.

After checking in, a nurse administered the vaccine to community members, and recipients had to wait about 15 minutes for observation before leaving.

Elrakaivy said her group has been giving out free masks to Queens residents on the streets, and providing them with information on how to get a COVID-19 test and vaccine. The COVID Free Queens Coalition took down the names of food vendors, who Elrakaivy said are high-risk due to interacting with many different people daily, and made vaccine appointments for those who were interested.

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Nada Elrakaivy, a COVID Free Queens Coalition outreach specialist, told Insider many community members have been hesitant about receiving a Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Allana Akhtar/Business Insider

The team always has a Spanish-speaking person with them to communicate with the area's Latino community.

"For the most part, every time we ask someone if they got the vaccine, they responded with a yes," Elrakaivy said. "So Queens is doing pretty well. Better than we expected."

How Sunnyside Community Services workers are dealing with vaccine hesitancy

Jonah Gensler, the associate executive director of Community Services, told Insider he had been engaging with the community throughout the pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, Sunnyside Community Services held services for senior citizens, English classes for immigrant residents, and other programs for vulnerable people across Queens. Gensler said the non-profit reached with homebound seniors using their phone numbers gathered at previous Sunnyside Community Services events.

Read more: Well-funded healthcare startups are snatching up smaller companies to keep growing. It's the start of a consolidation tsunami.

The group set up a food pantry when the pandemic hit to help struggling community members. Community Services has also hosted online town halls to get the word out about COVID-19 safety, Gensler said.

Gensler said a roadblock to getting community members vaccinated has been the hesitancy around getting a vaccine and distrust in the government, especially after wealthier areas got better access to vaccines than communities that had suffered during the height of the pandemic.

"We have heard that some community members say, 'You know, at the height of this pandemic, when the communities in Elmhurst and Corona and Jackson Heights were suffering the most, we didn't get all the support we needed,'" Gensler said. "And that does lead to hesitancy."

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Nurses wait to administer vaccine jabs to recipients at Sunnyside Community Services Allana Akhtar/Business Insider

But Lopez, the lead organizer of COVID Free Queens Coalition, said Sunnyside Community Services is uniquely positioned to increase interest in vaccines due to its active members.

She said when one community member said they were hesitant about the vaccine at a recent town hall, other community members chimed in to explain why they got the shot. One person took the vaccine to make sure a senior citizen they care for is safe, Lopez said, and one mother said they want to make sure their child is cared for.

"For us, the biggest goal is kind of bringing up those voices and those stories of why people decided to take the vaccine so that other people who are so a little bit more hesitant will be able to make those connections as well," Lopez said.

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