For Dana Elden, tenant president of the St. Mary’s Park Houses, helping those in her development grapple with Covid-19 has been a tough endeavor. But she’s arranged weekly rapid testing at the NYCHA complex, as well as other nearby developments. And while she has been able to partner with medical groups and organizations, she said one party didn’t play a part.
Now that the focus has shifted toward vaccinations, she said little has changed, once again having to work with partners to help set up vaccinations for St. Mary’s residents.
While more and more New Yorkers are getting their shots, in the South Bronx, which has among the largest concentrations of NYCHA developments, vaccinations are trailing. Community organizations and leaders are playing a vital role in getting local public housing residents vaccinated, but they’re stressing that setting up shop at the NYCHAs is fundamental to that effort.
Efforts from the city, state and federal government are in full swing, with about 5 million vaccine doses administered in the city. The city has also begun its homebound vaccinations, bolstered by the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine, a boon for NYCHA and its increasingly aging population.
As of April 10, zip code 10474, corresponding to Hunts Point, had 25% of its residents at least partially vaccinated, the fewest of any zip code in the Bronx. Other South Bronx neighborhoods aren’t faring much better. The citywide average is 40%.
In an email statement to the Mott Haven Herald, NYCHA stated that “our outreach efforts include sending robocalls, emails to residents, and direct outreach calls. In partnership with the [Department of Health and Mental Hygiene], we also host community conversations for NYCHA residents to learn more and ask questions about the COVID-19 vaccine and on-site vax clinics.”
According to the statement provided mid-March, NYCHA had partnered with six providers at over 50 individual pop-up vaccination sites, including 17 in the Bronx. Those efforts resulted in 15,000 residents being vaccinated, including senior NYCHA residents and other senior citizens in the city, the agency said.
The housing agency declined to provide more updated numbers or respond to criticism that its vaccination efforts have fallen short.
Gloria Patrone, the director of East Side Houses, which manages the Borinquen Court Mitchel Senior Center at The Mitchel Houses, said that in an agreement with NYCHA, the Department for the Aging and the Health Department, the senior center held a vaccination event, in which 400 doses were administered to people from public housing and other areas of the South Bronx.
While the Department for the Aging has called for the senior centers to close because of the potential spread that results from congregate settings, Patrone said East Side Houses has maintained contact with its clients through phone calls and emails. When her organization tried to sign up eligible residents to get vaccinated at Yankee Stadium, she said their efforts were often met with disinterest, particularly because of the distance.
But when they opened the pop-up at Borinquen Court, she said, there was more interest. Patrone said she was vaccinated earlier in the year, allowing her to serve as an example to those who might be on the fence about whether to get vaccinated.
“I was the one that got the vaccine in January and I was motivating other people to get it because it’s the way how we can get rid of this pandemic, you know. If the seniors, if the older adults see that you are a little younger than them and you got the vaccine, they’ll say ‘okay, I want to get it, too.”
Ronald Topping, tenant association president of the John Adams Houses in Melrose, said there hasn’t been a vaccination site yet at his development, with NYCHA not providing much help. He said information on the vaccine has been scattered, with a few posters in the development, and he had not received any phone calls from NYCHA.
“It needs to be a more targeted effort. And if they’re going to talk about NYCHAs, they need to target NYCHA,” he said.
Topping expressed skepticism about the vaccines, questioning how they were developed so quickly and whether they’re causing blood clots. He also raised questions about the three different, readily available vaccines: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson.
He has not been vaccinated, Topping acknowledged. “I don’t have enough information on that, whether I want them to stick a needle in my arm and inject me with whatever that stuff is they injected people with. You don’t really know. Unless you have any more information, share it, because I don’t.”
Despite his hesitancy, he said he would favor a vaccine site at the Adams Houses so residents could have a more convenient option.
The Bronx Rising Initiative has been spearheading an effort to get more NYCHA residents in the Bronx vaccinated, setting up pop-up vaccination sites throughout the borough. The organization raised over $2 million for vaccines and teamed up with Morris Heights Health Center to help administer the vaccines.
They have vaccinated more than 4,000, including 700 NYCHA residents, the nonprofit said. Bronx Rising has set up pop-up sites at several NYCHAs, including the Betances and Butler houses, and recently announced it will provide vaccines to homebound residents in partnership VIP Community Services and community-based organizations including Meals on Wheels and East Side House Settlement.
“Our goal is to go to every single NYCHA development in the Bronx,” said Tomas Ramos, executive director of the organization. “The reality is you can keep putting up these mass vaccination sites but a lot of these residents won’t go on their own. They’re not looking to sign up on their own, they don’t know how to navigate that system… there’s a huge language barrier.”
Ramos, who worked for four years at a NYCHA community center, cited several obstacles in getting people vaccinated. He’s heard misinformation and conspiracies about the vaccine, including that the cost of administering the first dose ranges from $75 to $150, with Medicaid or Medicare shouldering only a small amount of the associated costs. And after living in a NYCHA complex, many have grown wary of government, he said.
But after the pop-up vaccination event was held at Bronx River Houses, he received a call from the tenant president, who said more residents had asked to get vaccinated. He says that’s a sign that as more people in the community get vaccinated, vaccine hesitancy will thaw.
”How we’re going to get the people’s trust is meeting them where they’re at, making it as easy as possible for them to get vaccinated, which is literally coming down to your community center to do it,” Ramos said. “Otherwise, going online or navigating a system they’re not used to is not going to entice them to do it.”