By Melissa Koenig and Peter Belfiore
Cynthia Hamilton had been trying to get a Covid-19 vaccine since January, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced that health aides like her were eligible for the shot. But everywhere she looked, she said, all appointment slots were full.
So Hamilton reached out to State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages for help, and last Saturday, she received her first inoculation at Nassau County’s pop-up vaccine site at Elmont Memorial High School.
“It was good,” the 64-year-old Elmont woman said of the experience, adding that she could now visit her sister, a home health aide in the Bronx, after not seeing her since the pandemic began last year. “I won’t hug her,” Hamilton said, “but at least I can say hi.”
Hamilton was one of 1,000 residents who were inoculated that day as part of the county’s effort to make more vaccines available in communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
In November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that African-Americans were 1.4 times more likely to contract the virus than white Americans, 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.8 times more likely to die from it.
Studies have shown that African-Americans are also more likely to work in essential services. In Elmont, which is 45.5 percent Black, more than 1,500 residents worked in health care support services in 2018, roughly 2,000 worked in sales and more than 1,200 worked in transportation services, according to the U.S. census.
Data from the New York State Department of Health, however, shows that Black people are being inoculated at lower rates than their white counterparts. As of Feb. 24, white people accounted for 82.2 percent of those who were eligible to receive the vaccine on Long Island, and 83.5 percent of those who had been vaccinated in Nassau and Suffolk counties. African-Americans, meanwhile, accounted for 10.9 percent of Long Island’s eligible population, but had received 4.9 percent of the vaccines.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said, though, that 2.6 percent of Long Islanders who had received at least one dose of the vaccine had declined to list race or ethnicity.
“We want to ensure access to the vaccine for all communities,” Curran said at a news conference at the pop-up site Saturday, noting that county officials do not “want to leave any population in the county behind.”
The county set up a phone line for Elmont residents to schedule appointments at the pop-up vaccine site, she said, and officials reached out to community leaders to find local people in need of a vaccine.
“Filling these thousand slots was a priority,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach who represents part of Elmont. “We were in the community making sure we’re giving access to the most vulnerable,” including those without internet access, to schedule their appointments online.
Joan Robertson, 81, of Floral Park, for example, has only a home phone. Her neighbors, Kiki and Tom Sclafani, had tried to secure Robertson an appointment for weeks, to no avail, and offered to drive Robertson to the city for an appointment, but Robertson wanted the vaccine to be administered by hospital personnel locally.
She considered Jones Beach for an appointment, but changed her mind when she saw photographs of cars lined up at the site. So, when Kiki saw on Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages’s Instagram page that there would be a pop-up event in Elmont, she messaged her and made Robertson an appointment.
“I thought it was great,” Robertson said after receiving her first dose last Saturday. “There was no wait here at all.”
Those who work in the Sewanhaka Central High School District were also eligible to receive the Covid-19 vaccine that day, including Briana Scognamiglio, a math teacher at Sewanhaka and H. Frank Carey high schools, and Jennifer Williams, a security aide at Elmont Memorial High School, who said she decided to get the vaccine so she could visit her 94-year-old mother in Trinidad.
The process, she said, went by like “one, two, three,” and now Williams, who had previously only left her house in Amityville to go to Walmart when it was not crowded, said, “I feel like I have a security fence around me.”
The vaccines were administered by 50 Northwell Health employees, and were from the county’s allotment it receives from the state.
The county was set to host another pop-up event in Glen Cove this week, and Northwell Chief Executive Officer Michael Dowling said the hospital network has six vaccination sites now operating on Wednesday, with 300 employees working on the vaccination effort.
“We’re making progress,” Dowling said, reporting that at the height of the pandemic in New York last April, Northwell’s hospitals had a daily peak of 3,500 Covid-19 patients. After a lull over the summer and fall, the holiday season saw 1,400 patients at Northwell facilities, he said. Now, there are 935 patients, and 17 percent of Nassau residents had received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine as of last Saturday.
“This is progress,” Dowling said at a news conference on Feb. 24, offering hope that despite the potential for more virus variants, with more vaccines in the pipeline for approval, and continued safety precautions, the pandemic would end in the near future.
“The vaccine works, it is safe, and it is the best cure we have,” Dowling said. “And I’ve told people, whatever you think about how you might have discomfort after getting the vaccine, if you compare that to being in an ICU on a hospital floor, believe me, the vaccine is worth taking.”