Carl Jackson is eager to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’ll be able to rest easy once I have it,” the 87-year-old Schenectady resident told me, while volunteering at the food pantry at Schenectady Community Ministries. “I’ll feel very comfortable, having something in my body that can help me fight the disease.”
Jackson’s age places him at higher risk of developing a severe illness or dying from COVID-19, but he hasn’t tried to get a vaccine appointment yet, for a couple of reasons.
His wife is 90 and “physically challenged,” and Jackson wants to get his shot when she does. He’s also waiting for the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to become available nearer to home.
“I’m waiting for it to become more convenient,” the Schenectady resident, who has worked at the food pantry throughout the pandemic, told me.
The limited supply of doses has meant that it simply isn’t possible to meet the demand for the vaccine from those who really want it.
But this dynamic is shifting.
The vaccine is becoming more readily available, and efforts to bring it to needier, less mobile people are ramping up, along with discussions of how to persuade those who say they have no intention of getting the vaccine to get it.
The data shows that minority COVID-19 vaccination rates have lagged, and state data paints a portrait of highly unequal distribution.
In Schenectady County, 90 percent of those who have received one-dose of the vaccine are white, while just four percent are Black.
If the goal is to attain herd immunity, then closing this racial vaccine gap is vital.
To that end, Schenectady County Public Health plans to offer more neighborhood-based vaccine clinics, and has been meeting with the Albany-based Black Nurses Coalition to discuss how to better reach the county’s Black and brown residents.
“From the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve tried to bring crucial public health infrastructure to people who are high risk and least likely to have access to those resources,” Keith Brown, Schenectady County’s interim director of public health.
Ideally, the county would have large, publicly-available vaccination sites and smaller, community-based clinics operating simultaneously, Brown said, noting that two mass vaccinations events at Rivers Casino vaccinated 2,000 people.
“We have to do both and we have to do more,” he said.
Some have suggested that Black residents might be more hesitant to get the vaccine, but community leaders and health experts say the issue is more nuanced – that there is skepticism about the vaccine, but that access, or lack thereof, is the bigger challenge.
“Access trumps skepticism any day in my book,” said Dr. Brenda Robinson, founder and CEO of the Black Nurses Coalition.
Indeed, a glance at polling data suggests that skepticism is on the decline.
It also challenges conventional wisdom.
According to an NPR/PBSNewsHour/Marist survey released this past week, there is little difference in reluctance to take the vaccine among Black and white Americans, with 73 percent of Black people and 70 percent of white people saying they intended to get the vaccine or had done so already.
On March 29, the Schenectady NAACP is hosting a virtual forum on the vaccine, with the goal of presenting factual information, answering questions and providing an opportunity for Black medical professionals who have received the vaccine discuss why they did so.
“We’re trying to reach people where they are,” said Nikita Hardy, one of the Schenectady NAACP members organizing the upcoming panel. “We want people to get information about the vaccine and make informed choices for themselves.”
Hardy said the vaccine rollout has left Schenectady’s residents of color behind, which has magnified whatever concerns people might already have about the vaccine.
The Capital Region’s two main vaccination sites, the University at Albany and the Washington Avenue Armory, are both located in Albany, which can be difficult for people to get to, especially if they lack transportation or have disabilities.
“You have people who do not leave Schenectady, so what about those people?” Hardy said. “You have to go to the people.”
Hardy is right, which is why it’s good news that Schenectady County is planning more neighborhood-based clinics, partnering with the Black Nurses Coalition and helping people sign-up for vaccine appointments through the Schenectady County Public Library.
Founded in 2015, the non-profit Black Nurses Coalition is a boots-on-the-ground-type operation that strives to reduce racial health care disparities by sending Black medical professionals into the community to work with people in need. When COVID-19 hit, the group had already built up trust in Albany’s underserved communities.
Robinson said community-based vaccine clinics are key to getting minority residents vaccinated. So is staffing – having people of color working or volunteering at clinics and doing everything from checking people in to administering shots.
“One issue you find at the clinics is that everybody’s white,” Robinson said. “When you’re dealing with the minority community, we want to see ourselves.”
Robinson often shares her own vaccination story, telling people that she was once skeptical about the vaccine, in part because it was created so quickly, and decided to get it after doing her own research and concluding it was safe.
On Friday, I dropped by a vaccine clinic at the City Mission of Schenectady, where people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness were receiving their second dose of the vaccine. The virus spreads easily in congregate settings, putting those who live or work in shelters at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
John Davis, a 59-year-old City Mission resident who works the front desk at the men’s shelter, was among those getting vaccinated.
He told me that he wanted the vaccine for “protection,” adding, “I’m at the front desk, and there’s a lot of people coming through the front door. The vaccine protects me from them, and them from me.”
Kimarie Shepard, executive director of Bethesda House in Schenectady, told me that 28 of the organization’s 34 residents had received the vaccine at the City Mission.
“We knew it was coming and we had a lot of conversations about it,” she said.
Leina Minakawa, director of clinical services and program and case management services at Bethesda House, said that there are a lot of misperceptions about the vaccine, and the best way to address them is to have conversations where people can speak freely about their feelings.
During one such conversation with guests of Bethesda House’s homeless shelter, Minakawa shared her story of falling sick with COVID-19 last fall and opting to get the vaccine when it became available this year.
“They were pretty captivated by that,” she said. “It would be great to have more discussion groups.”
Being safe from COVID-19 requires making sure everyone in the community has access to the vaccine, not just a small sliver of it.
Schenectady County has some promising initiatives in the works, and I’m optimistic those efforts will bear fruit in the weeks and months to come.
If all goes well, it shouldn’t be too long before everyone who wants the vaccine can get it.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.