Building Trust & Confidence among Oldest New Yorkers to Get COVID 19 Vaccine: A Conversation

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According to Dr. Joseph Lapado, “90% of deaths from Covid-19 are among those over 55…death rate would be expected to plummet if the older and vulnerable were protected effectively (by getting vaccinated) …”. This issue formed the basis for the conversation between selected New York City community leaders, organized by the NYC Department for Aging, Global Coalition on Aging, and Age-Friendly NYC.

In the virtual forum, moderated by Michael Hodin, CEO of Global Coalition on Aging, speakers discussed how to build trust and confidence toward vaccination among New York City Seniors, especially among people of color and other immigrants. Each speaker spoke about their organization’s roles, challenges, and some recommendations.

At the New York City’s Department for Aging, the Commissioner, Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, acknowledged the importance of getting communities, including the people of color, vaccinated. She revealed that although the process has been daunting and frustrating given the disequilibrium between vaccine supply and demand, her department keeps the feedback and communication channel user-friendly. Another speaker, Dr. Olusimbo Ige, Assistant Commissioner, from the Bureau of Health Equity Capacity Building, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, reported that “… Over 1.3 million New Yorkers are vaccinated, with over 215,581 seniors vaccinated.” She explained that the department is concerned about making sure all New Yorkers have information. Also, ” 50 % who were vaccinated, identified as White and Caucasian, and there was a lower percentage of Blacks and Latinos. We are working hard to address the concerns of these groups so that they can access their resources.”

Buttressing this point, a public health expert in CUNY, Dr. Scott Ratzan, said that according to the latest survey released on vaccines in NYC, the numbers are going up. “…64% of New Yorkers have received the vaccine, yet the numbers are not high enough … we are working to build vaccine confidence and be a physician that causes no harm at the same time.” He reiterated that their mandate as experts is on building trust not only for the vaccine but also on the whole. Confirming the low turnout, Dana Atmore-Dolly, Executive Director, Greater Allen AME Cathedral, who oversees five senior centers shares that, their non-profit allows them to hear and provide advice to the seniors and “…the numbers are low, but their(seniors) concerns are not insurmountable.”

A few participants who had received the vaccine have been using it as a tool for advocacy. For instance, Dr. Thomas Johnson, Senior Minister Harlem Baptist, received the vaccine. Martha Works, a community member, also received the vaccine to promote advocacy, in her words.”… I am thankful that I had the vaccine….” Marilyn Lopez, a geriatric nurse, also said, “It is an opportunity to protect myself, family, and my patients.”

Listen to “Not Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine – Get a FREE Estate Planning Consultation” by Attorney Brian Figeroux

The conversation then moved into other issues:

Moderator: What can be done to reach the community?

Responding, Frankie Miranda, President & CEO Hispanic Federation, shared that from the onset of the pandemic, they knew the pandemic would have a significant impact in their community. . . “It was going to be very difficult, especially when we know that members of our community felt they would be penalized. It affected people by having our headquarters in New York and getting information from all other parts of the country. We knew our people were getting sick, having facts like over 65% of people in our community are people in jobs considered essential work. These are the people who had to go to work and get exposed. Secondly, most of our community is multigeneration, so the tendency of infection will be higher. The city tried to combat this, but it has remained traumatic for our community.”

He recommended that to overcome, his community members need cash assistance, food assistance, and providing agencies with equipment to help them serve their community better.

And, he said, “… there is need to continue to use the third sector, the non-profit sector which are often trusted within the community, partner with them so that they can deliver a more culturally appropriate way and trusted way to the community.”

Moderator: What are the messages that are working in the community? Is it fear of getting COVID 19? or is it gaining trust and promoting vaccination?

To address this point, Dr. Thomas Johnson, Senior Pastor Canaan Baptist Church, explained that the use of socio-media to communicate to members of the congregation seems effective, yet it is not working. He explained that the method is not direct enough, and people need hands-on solutions because fear has exasperated things. “Our communities are fearful of the federal government; they are afraid of the vaccine; they are fearful of everything. I think the more community-based it is, the more effective it will be.” The expected result will be a narrower gap and better access to vital resources with the church and faith community serving as the conduit.

At the Commissioner’s request, Lorraine Cortes -Vasquez, community leaders shared their experiences: Donna Atmore -Dolly revealed that there is a comfort level created for taking the vaccine. They make calls and see if the seniors are interested, some of the seniors want someone to talk the issue through with them, and “…we are trying to address their concerns.”

Jo-Ann Yoo, the Executive Director of the Asian-American Federation, acknowledged a lot of work by their allies in the government, reiterating the need for more work in getting people to sign up. “…Seniors won’t be able to stay up to refresh their website to book a vaccination, secondly, they have to deal with limited English proficiency, and within the Asian -American community, hate crimes have really created a challenge. Seniors are afraid to leave their home.” She recommended that “We need to get the federal government to turn on the vaccine tap. We want to see some of the prominent leaders in our community vaccinated.”

Consistent with other non-profit leaders, she feels that the non-profit is a crucial partner to increasing the numbers of vaccinated community members, with adequate funding provisions for their activities.

Rabbi Michael Miller, Jewish Community, the Executive Vice President /CEO, listed five key areas of consideration in getting more participation: the importance of a trusted voice, sending a non-judgmental message, ensuring that the message is respectful, employing the use of peer influence, and having a trusted site. A key insight was the realization that most seniors don’t want to go outside their community for vaccination and that the senior population needs different management. “I want to go to a senior center in my hood. “

FPWA’s Director of Membership & Strategic Partnerships, Rev. Derrick Harkins, is a voice in the issue of equity and accessibility to healthcare. In his view, access to vaccines, especially in communities of color, is critical. He shared some works his agency has been doing, like designing a tool kit to address issues that might help people make decisions. The toolkit will be accessible, legible, and answers consumers’ questions.

Moderator:  So many seniors who are home alone, incapacitated, how are they getting their information?

Most seniors do not use social media, so the community’s outreach is essential; we can’t rely on social media. Using mails, handouts, making sure that they are receiving their supplies are crucial.

Moderator: What about the concerns of side effects?

The medical expert and Assistant Commissioner, Dr. Olusimbo Ige, explained that “It is not unusual to have side-effects from the vaccination. For COVID -19 vaccine: swelling, fever, headache, feeling under the weather. It is not a sign that you are getting the virus because it does not contain the virus. The symptom goes away within days. Symptoms happen more after the 2nd shot. From the data, there is no long-term effect. Safety is a major concern; we want to reassure folks that it is safe. The benefits far outweigh the minor side-effect.” Dr. Jennifer Rosen, Director, Epidemiology, and Surveillance, supported the explanation,”…majority of symptoms experienced within 1-3 days and are a similar reaction to other vaccines.”

Dr. Ige also shared some of NYC’s strategies in countering the fear of not getting vaccinated. Dr. Ige noted that one of the prevalent concerns is the difficulty in navigating the online booking process. Thus far, the approach has been through the website and calling designated phone numbers. However, other options introduced include: “For eligible older adults, training of community organization has been done with community-based organizations that can provide information to the older adults, for instance, NYCHA development have been supported, and DFIT is used to provide robocalls and mails to NY Seniors. Transportation support is provided for older adults by Hunter ambulette, and we are exploring opportunities for non-internet-based appointments.”

Moderator: Considering the impact of where you will get vaccinated. Are there things we are doing to enhance skepticism?

Dr. Thomas Johnson said that “Faith-based leaders know that faith and reason work best when aligned. We need to address the “fear factor”…start conveying… persistence, keep working together towards getting needles into the arms of Seniors in the community. Anything done to reduce the barrier is important.”

As a form of recommendation, Rev. Harkins claims that the power of validation by having community leaders’ participation is important and transparency because people appreciate transparency. According to him, “It’s going to be important for the store-front community leaders to have access to these resources and circulate the information. The hesitancy in the black community and overcoming that is emphasizing validation. There is so much to be said transparently, and validation on every level is very important.”

Dr. Ratzan also suggested that “Creating a ‘vaccine literacy’ and simplifying the system is important and providing economic and behavioral incentives. There is a need for a highly localized strategy, asking open-ended questions and having dialogues, using different questions. Finally, in the words of Rabbi Miller, “…We are all created in the image of God. We must do all we can to preserve life. All of us regardless, are doing God’s work, we have a tremendous amount of work to do.”

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