Kai Wright: It's The Takeaway, I'm Kai Wright in for Tanzina, who's back in the host chair tomorrow. As vaccine eligibility continues expanding across the country, data from a number of states continues to indicate that Black and Latino people are not being vaccinated at the same rates as white people. That's despite the fact that these are the same communities that have been overrepresented in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Early on in the vaccine rollout, public health experts raised concerns that vaccine hesitancy among communities of color could be a major challenge.
Recent polling from NPR found roughly the same degree of vaccine hesitancy among Black and white respondents. That same poll did find that Latino respondents were somewhat more likely to say they would not be getting the shot. While access to vaccines remains a major problem for Black and Latino communities, the brighter side of this story is that vaccine hesitancy appears to be going down, and a fair amount of the credit should be given to local leaders. Many of them have taken it upon themselves to share information about the vaccine and help people in their communities schedule vaccination appointments.
I have two guests with me now who have been playing this role in their communities. Pastor John Zayas is the leader of the Grace and Peace Community Church in Chicago. Pastor John, thanks for being here.
John Zayas: Hello, thank you for having me.
Kai: S. Mitra Kalita is the publisher of Epicenter, a newsletter helping New Yorkers to get through the pandemic, and CEO of URL Media, a network of Black and brown community news outlets. Mitra, great to have you back on the show.
- Mitra Kalita: Thanks, Kai. Great to be here.
Kai: Mitra, your newsletter got its name Epicenter because you are in a part of Queens that was the epicenter of this crisis when it started last spring, which means that if it was an epicenter here in New York, it was one of the epicenters in the country. Remind us about the toll COVID-19 has taken on your community.
- Mitra Kalita: Sure. We launched out of Jackson Heights, Corona, and Elmhurst, which are neighborhoods in Queens that just a year ago if we were talking on the phone, you would hear ambulance sirens going off behind me. Just the physical goal was evident, and I would say that over the last year terms like social distancing, a quarantine, what the rest of the country might feel, or even like working from home, these are concepts that in my neighborhood are not really how pandemic has played out. It's a very dense neighborhood, and the reasons that we love living here made it really the right place for COVID to spread.
Kai: Right. We saw huge numbers of both cases and deaths there. Pastor John, how about in your congregation in Chicago, how's it been impacted by the virus.
Pastor John Zayas: It's been difficult because we have a major immigrant population, and so they're very hidden in homes and very isolated. The biggest impact that has happened in our community has been to try to communicate, to try to gather, to try to even send the message out of how tough the virus has been. Sometimes in our community, especially Chicago, folks go into silos and it was just very difficult for us, in the beginning, to really spread the word or even to try to help.
Kai: Well, but then so when the vaccine rollout started, members of your congregation started coming to you with questions about it. What were they asking you?
Pastor John Zayas: The first thing where they asked me if it was safe or are we being used, or is this of God? It's just so many questions that they had to trust, and so we had to walk through a process with them and say, listen, this is not an end time vaccine so let's get that off the table. This is something that it's been worked on and try to ease their fears, try to comfort them in a way that they would feel like, okay, if you as the leader trusted, and we know you, then are you going to get the vaccine? My wife and I, once the vaccine was available to us, we took it and that began to create a bigger conversation, where we're able to chip away little by little folk's fears and their lack of understanding of it, but they trust us. That was a keyword.
Kai: Right. Mitra, what about in Queens early on in the vaccine rollout, what were some of the information gaps?
- Mitra Kalita: I would agree with the pastor that as soon as somebody knows someone who they trust, who they love, who's very personal to them, who's gotten the vaccine, their attitude towards the vaccine completely changes. In early days, it was very similar. In early January, we started to hear from just subscribers of our newsletters saying, how do we get this, I don't have the internet access, I don't have the skill set to toggle among multiple sites.
Really, it was not as much vaccine hesitancy as much as it was, please help me get access to the vaccine. I think that's a really important point, that we've framed this as mistrust and some hesitancy which I don't want to discount that, but I think the access issues are what people are mostly asking us for help navigating. I would say that once we see a ripple effect, I mean we have spreadsheets now, we've helped about 2500 people get booked for their vaccines. I see trend lines where one waitress at a sushi restaurant might get her vaccine through Epicenter a few days later, I start to see three or four people from the same restaurant.
Then a few days go by, and I see more and more and more. I really feel like what we need to get out there, we've registered 2500 people, my hope is that the impact of that is countless more people who know their friends, their neighbors, their churches. Again, to the pastor's point, institutions that we trust, getting their vaccines and having a ripple effect because that's the single most important thing that any company and any community can be working on right now. I really, really believe that.
Kai: I hate to use the analogy, but it's viral, it goes viral. It sounds like what you're describing from person to person.
- Mitra Kalita: Also, and if anybody can help make that process easier, our word-of-mouth spread is so much greater than Twitter, and Facebook, which I think is really important that much of the government's rollout has been on the internet, and yet, these are populations that are not on the internet, and so we really, by any means that we can make this feel real and accessible, right? That is exactly the way for viral.
Kai: Mitra on this question of access we know that, as you've pointed out, that this community person-to-person approach is what works. In New York, what is the conversation been like between York, at the community level, and government officials?
- Mitra Kalita: Sure. I think in some way, we're a newsletter, I'm a journalist, so I did not intend to get into vaccine distribution. I think that the greatest takeaway for me has been the vaccine rollouts, failure has been one of communications. That's where we inserted ourselves into helping our community. I do think the good news is that government officials are listening on two fronts. One, they are getting the message out that if you are eligible for the vaccine get the vaccine.
We're at a stage where you want to look for eligibility as opposed to some of the language we were hearing of like, I'm just going to wait my turn. I have high blood pressure, but there are people who might need to go before me. I think that narrative, thankfully is changing. If you qualify at all, just go get the vaccine, and politicians have changed their stance towards this rate. It's been very much from a place of no vaccine shaming, just go get the vaccine.
The second is over this past weekend, I saw great progress from politicians that have been supporting pop-up vaccine sites, the arrival of the J&J vaccine, which is a one-shot vaccine, which means workers don't have to take two days off, potentially more time depending on their reaction to those doses. J&J has been pretty revolutionary, and we see community leaders and government officials embracing pop-up sites for J&J, you're one and done, get you in and out, and we're definitely seeing that.
Mostly skewed towards seniors and educators, my hope is that the next phase of this may be by this weekend and in days to come, starts to get essential workers and restaurant workers because that's the population that really seems hesitant to take two days off of work. This time off keeps coming up over and over as a stumbling block.
Kai: Pastor John, what about in Chicago, have government officials been proactive about reaching out to you and helping in your work?
Pastor John Zayas: Yes, they have. I think Chicago has done a really good job, I would even say great in reaching out with the local officials but also the mosque, the churches of faith, and even community centers, and mention us. We have these group talks and they gather us together to look at sites that need more help or more vaccines. Then we work together as a group and begin to identify those sites and then say, okay, we can use say a thousand vaccines at this site or 750 vaccines at this site. It bounces around in different areas and with the ZIP codes in Chicago, we identify the hotspots, and then we've been targeted.
I know that we are hosting a site in April. We're going to host 750 vaccines at our site because we have a lot of immigrant populations. They want to target that this next round. They've done a really good job of communicating that. We're part of the mayor's task force of answering those questions, boots on the ground kind of thing. We go to our community, find out what's going on, talk to our residents, how they're feeling. Even those who have taken the vaccine, how they're doing.
Then try to even find testimonies so that we can share with other residents and other folks, say, "Listen, they received the vaccine; they're doing well. Would you entertain the thought of doing the same?" It's walking it through, walking them through a process, allowing them to feel comfortable, feeling that this is safe. That's been our experience so far with all the folks that we've had got an opportunity to vaccinate.
Kai: What about on the access questions? Mitra mentioned that taking off work for double vaccine shots has been a big issue in her community. What are the access questions for you?
Pastor John Zayas: For us, it's been because again, for a lot of folks they've been doing a lot of Saturday vaccine distribution days. They've tried to do days where people are likely to be off. We have prepared folks in advance so that when we hear that there's a vaccine offered in some site, we'll say, "Listen, is there a possibility that you can take this day off?" If we have to even talk to their employer, let them know, listen, this will help here in this position and they would allow that to happen. I think that for the best of it it's been, I would say we've done a lot of weekends. Saturdays and Sundays have been the target dates that the city has really focused on to give the vaccine where there's more likely opportunity where people are taking the days off.
Kai: Neither of you are public health officials. This is not either of your job and you stepped up in this way. I wonder about that and how you're taking care of yourselves in the middle of this. Mitra, what about you? How have you taken yourself in the middle of this?
- Mitra Kalita: That is the million-dollar question. You are getting me after a night where I decided to go to bed at 10:00 PM and the state sites have a surge of appointments at 1:00 AM. I did that knowing that I would not be on with the rest of the volunteers who've been working but I just had to because it's been days and days, weeks and weeks of this registration drive. It certainly takes a toll, not just in terms of physical exhaustion but there are so many issues that have surfaced in the vaccine rollout from documentation that people paid under the table need to people not having doctors. There are so many of the ills of decades of neglect that we're contending with now. It's easy to take all that very personally and feel burdened by it.
On the other hand, I really believe that how we are spending our time in the pandemic will define our country, our world, our communities after the pandemic. For me not to give back to people who have been enabling the takeout that my family orders or the hospital workers up the street or the teachers who are working to figure out homeschooling, remote schooling, all the types of education that we're doing right now. This really feels necessary. That's what keeps me going is that we're just in this moment where if you can give back, I hate to sound lofty but what awaits us on the other side is very dependent on getting everybody vaccinated.
Kai: S. Mitra Kalita is the publisher of Epicenter and CEO of URL Media. Pastor John Zayas is the leader of the Grace and Peace Community Church in Chicago. Thanks so much to both of you for your work and for joining us.
- Mitra Kalita: Thanks, Kai. Great to be here.
Pastor John Zayas: Thank you for having me.
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