By Emily Drooby
Far Rockaway in Queens is a community devastated by COVID-19. For having one of the city’s highest death rates, they also have one of its lowest vaccination rates. Only 26 percent of people are fully vaccinated and only 32 percent have gotten their first dose, according to city data.
Father David Bertolotti serves at the local parish, St. Mary Star of the Sea and St. Gertrude Parish. While he made the decision to get vaccinated, he heard many reasons for hesitancy from parishioners.
“Some people, it’s political. They don’t want to be forced,” Father Bertolotti said. “Some people fear for their own health. They’re afraid if they’re dealing with some other health thing.”
Those are vaccine hesitations that Dr. Ari Benjamin has heard too.
“You get the full range, but the majority of people are reasonable,” explained Dr. Benjamin. “They’re just a little hesitant because it is something new.”
The doctor is with the Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center. As one of the few health care providers in the area, they’ve been at the forefront of the neighborhood’s vaccination efforts.
The health center’s CEO, Miriam Vega, says the low rate comes from the two ‘A’’s – the first being accessibility.
“The Far Rockaway area is a very isolated, insular community,” Miriam explained. “They don’t want to get on the A train to try to get to some other location deep in Queens to get the vaccines.”
According to city data, there’s now at least seven vaccination sites and two pop-ups in Far Rockaway and the neighboring Edgemere neighborhood to address this concern.
The second ‘A’ is acceptability. The Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center is using education to address the different mindsets.
“We do it at the individual level, the community level, and through social media as well,” Miriam said.
The health center staff members are talking to patients and they’re bringing teams onto the streets and holding town halls. They’ve also urged people to ask questions.
“Come in and speak with someone and get an informed opinion,” explained Dr. Benjamin. “That’s the most important part. Don’t listen to what you see on the internet or from someone who may not be an expert.”
This part of Queens is a very diverse area. How is the health center adapting? They’re changing their messaging based on the community they’re talking to.
The education push seems to be working. The health center – which is now only vaccinating people on the weekends – had over 500 people this last weekend. That’s a 40 percent jump from previous weeks.
“We are starting to see a snowball effect now,” Miriam said. “So once a couple of people get a vaccine, the neighbors are like, ‘oh they got the vaccine and they’re okay, so maybe I should get it as well.’”