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New York City's Vaccine Outreach Aims To Dispel Mistrust Among Communities Of Color

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

New York City bore the brunt of the pandemic's first wave, with tens of thousands of deaths last spring. Still, there are plenty of residents who remain wary of getting the vaccine, and that's why the city is already starting to do education and outreach about it, even though it'll be several months before the general public is eligible.

As Fred Mogul at member station WNYC reports, that outreach is focusing on communities of color, where mistrust can run high.

FRED MOGUL, BYLINE: At the Spanish Methodist Church in East Harlem, people are lined up along the side of the building for free boxes of food. But around the front, there's no line for coronavirus tests and free flu shots at a little pop-up station.

A man named Kileem Roacher walks up to get a COVID test, and he's got something to say.

KILEEM ROACHER: I encourage all New Yorkers, especially minorities - I tell my mother and my brother, as well - it's a test that you got to continue to take.

MOGUL: Roacher already gotten his flu shot for the winter, but he says not many people he knows have. And looking ahead to the COVID vaccine, that worries him. At work, he's been getting into it with his buddy Mike (ph), who's also Black.

ROACHER: He's just skeptical of government. I'm like, I understand in terms of African Americans and minorities in this country, we've been disproportionately treated.

MOGUL: As many as 40% of African Americans in New York say they won't get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Others say they'll wait to see how it's going rather than getting it as soon as possible. Roacher thinks that given how devastating COVID has been for his community, people need to embrace science.

ROACHER: But when people are dying, if you have this pandemic, we're just going to have to trust in government.

MOGUL: Is he getting through to his friend Mike? Roacher is doubtful and hopeful at the same time.

Many health officials feel they can overcome mistrust by going to neighborhoods like East Harlem and partnering with trusted local institutions, like clinics, churches and barbershops.

MARK LEVINE: Time is short. This is going to take months of work.

MOGUL: City Councilman Mark Levine chairs the health committee. He points out that the city's COVID testing program has struggled to keep pace with demand, and the COVID vaccine campaign will be even larger and more complicated when it's fully up and running. Levine thinks the city needs to spend a lot more time and money, like it did last year to persuade New Yorkers to fill out their U.S. Census forms.

LEVINE: That hasn't happened yet in New York City. And we really need to be already launching a program of this scale.

MOGUL: The city says it has been ramping up, with efforts across the five boroughs, like the one here in East Harlem.

(LAUGHTER)

MOGUL: Ann Marie Vazquez is standing outside the church with her team from the Boriken Neighborhood Health Center and workers from the city health department. She says they're tackling vaccine distrust together by having conversations with the residents directly at the clinic and that neighborhood events like this one. They give people information and encourage them to seek guidance from people they trust.

ANN MARIE VAZQUEZ: The most important thing is to educate. Don't, you know, just believe what you hear out there. Get the education, especially from the professionals, the medical professionals.

MOGUL: Vazquez has overseen a dozen pop-up events like this, with churches, rec centers and senior centers.

VAZQUEZ: In the beginning, we had a lot of skepticism. People were afraid. Now, I think because they have this trust now that we're out here in the community and they know us and they know the organizations we partner with, that it's safe for them to take it - to take the flu shot.

MOGUL: The good news is that the city's neighborhood-based flu vaccine campaign netted 40% more participants than last year. But the bad news is that's only about 1 in 6 New Yorkers. Vazquez and others hope that the COVID vaccine campaign will make much deeper inroads than this. Experts say you need to vaccinate at least 70% of a population to halt the pandemic.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Mogul in New York.

SIMON: That story comes from NPR's partnership with WNYC and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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