More than 132 million people in the United States have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine, and as of this week, all Americans over 16 are eligible.
But while the United States has vaccinated more people than any other country in the world, vulnerable people continue to fall through the cracks. Those most affected are people who do not speak English, people who are not Internet savvy, and shift workers who do not have the time or access to a computer to reserve their own time slots. In many places, community leaders, volunteers and even media outlets have stepped in to help.
One of these groups is Epicenter-NYC, a media company that was founded during the pandemic to help neighbors navigate covid-19. Based in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, which has been particularly affected by the virus, the organization publishes a newsletter on education, business and other local news.
But Epicenter-NYC has gone further and has actually booked more than 4,600 vaccine appointments in New York City and beyond. People who wish to be vaccinated can contact the organization, either through a Admission form, a hotline, an SMS or an e-mail – for help setting up an appointment.
Throughout the vaccine rollout, the group also documented and shared what they learned about the process with a large audience of newsletter readers.
We spoke with S. Mitra Kalita, publisher of Epicenter-NYC, who was previously senior vice president of CNN Digital and is also the co-founder and CEO of Average url, a media network covering communities of color.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: How did you get started with scheduling vaccine appointments?
A: It started with two areas of awareness. First, when I had to register my own parents for a vaccine and found the process quite confusing, I immediately wondered how well the elderly residents, their friends and neighbors were handling this process. I just started sending them messages.
The second was when a restaurant [from our small business spotlight program] reached out and said, “Do you know how to get our restaurant workers vaccinated?” Because I had sailed some of this for the elderly, I started helping the catering workers. There started to be a similar network effect. One of the employees at this restaurant has a boyfriend who is a taxi driver; when i helped her she asked if i could help her boyfriend; then the boyfriend texted me with some of his friends; and it continued to spread that way.
Q: How is Epicenter-NYC currently filling the vaccine distribution gap? What is your process like and who are you helping?
A: We had between 200 and 250 people reach out to volunteer. Outreach efforts range from putting up flyers, translating and calling people to making appointments.
I don’t care if you’re a Bangladeshi cab driver in Queens and your cousin is in New Jersey. We will help both of you. A 102-year-old Upper East Side woman who is housebound and in need of a visit is definitely going to get help from Epicenter.
What we do now is continue to connect people to each other and create opportunity. There is a lot of matchmaking going on. We can sort through a list of about 7,500 to 8,000 people who have said they need help, and then find places nearby. We have become this wonderful marriage – a centralized operation that also encompasses decentralized solutions.
Q: We know immunization rates are lagging in many communities that have been hit the hardest. Why is that? What are the problems and obstacles that people face?
A: Just before Johnson & Johnson last break announcementI said, “We’re at a point where everyone else is a special case.”
I think we have moved on to vaccine reluctance without addressing the issue of vaccine access. We don’t see a lot of hesitation, but we do see a lot of concern on some issues. The first would be planning. We are dealing with populations who work two, maybe three jobs, and when they say, “I have this window Sunday from 3 to 6 maybe, when my next shift starts”, they really want say this is the only window.
Q: People have been asked to prove who they are, where they work and where they live in order to qualify for a vaccine. This was especially true where eligibility was more limited. How did you help people overcome barriers to getting the documents they needed?
A: New York State has been explicit in saying that you can still get the vaccine even if you are undocumented. But this message does not really correspond to the reality on the ground.