By Sam Bojarski | Sam@haitiantimes.com

vaccine site haitian neighborhood
Dr. Jacqueline Delmont, left, chief medical officer of SOMOS, registers the Rev. Dr. Alfred Cockfield, Pastor of God’s Battalion of Prayer Church, and First Lady Linette Cockfield for their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. The pop-up vaccine site was held at God’s Battalion of Prayer Church in East Flatbush, a neighborhood home to thousands of Haitian-Americans. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Since vaccines became available late last year, pastor Donna Baptiste of Clarendon Road Church in East Flatbush has helped keep her congregation updated about educational forums on the vaccine, via email and text message.

A mass inoculation site at Medgar Evers has played a major role in opening the vaccine to East Flatbush residents, Baptiste said. But her church has also not heard back on its application to vaccinate more community residents. 

“We are hopeful because there are people in our community that need [the vaccine],” said Baptiste, whose congregation of 400 people contains dozens of Haitian-Americans. “But I think a lot of it has to do with the distribution of vaccines, there is not a lot of it to go around.”

Throughout the pandemic, community leaders have cited the important role of the clergy when it comes to COVID-19 education, and recently, building trust in the vaccine and getting people inoculated.

Many clergy members in Brooklyn’s Haitian-American enclaves have said they are eager to play a greater role in inoculating community members. However, some pastors say their efforts to work more closely with officials and offer on-site vaccines have gained little traction.

“As we go, it influences how the rest of the community goes, as far as getting vaccinated,” said Rev. Samuel Nicolas, lead pastor at the Evangelical Crusade Christian Church. “We want to do our portion.”

Through government partnerships, certain churches have temporarily offered the vaccine, and New York State has committed to offering pop-up vaccination sites at more than 300 churches and cultural centers in the coming weeks.

Nicolas said his church has inquired with government authorities about administering the vaccine at his 2,000-member church in East Flatbush, but has not heard back.

“We’ve been asking since December to offer it, but we haven’t heard anything,” said Nicolas. “We’ve asked the state, we’ve asked the city.”

The 67th Precinct Clergy Council, a network of pastors largely based in East Flatbush, has advocated for longer-term vaccine sites at churches for weeks.

“The pop-up sites are really not the best way to go,” said Gil Monrose, lead pastor at Mt. Zion Church of God and president of the clergy council. “If there is a site in a house of worship in East Flatbush that is long-term, let’s say three weeks, four weeks, even two weeks, then we believe we will have a greater impact.” 

Vaccine supply short in Haitian enclave 

New York residents 60 years old and above, those with qualifying medical conditions and certain essential workers are eligible to get vaccinated. But in East Flatbush, lack of technology skills and internet access, along with vaccine hesitancy, has made it difficult for some people to register at pop-up sites, Monrose said. These sites typically do not stay open longer than three days.

“By the time the word gets out, the site is closed,” Monrose said. 

Since February 2020, zip code 11203 in East Flatbush has seen a coronavirus case rate of 6,791 per 100,000 people, lower than the citywide average of 7,910 per 100,000. However, its death rate of 379 per 100,000 people is higher than the citywide death rate of 304. 

Since vaccines began rolling out last December, 19.5% of people in the neighborhood have received at least one dose, compared to 25% throughout New York City. U.S. Census figures suggest that more than 10% of the 75,920 residents in the zip code are of Haitian descent, although these figures are likely undercounted. 

Churches have been among several options for neighborhood residents to get vaccinated. 

The state-run Medgar Evers mass vaccination site prioritized central Brooklyn residents when it first opened in late February to specific zip codes. It opened to all eligible Brooklynites on March 1. New York City’s COVID-19 Vaccine Finder website also lists more than a dozen pharmacies, hospitals and health centers offering the vaccine in Flatbush and surrounding neighborhoods. 

Big Apple Urgent Care, owned by Dr. Tamara Moise, began offering 100 doses of the two-part Moderna vaccine on March 17. Eligible residents can email info@bigappleurgentcare.com to make an appointment, according to staff.

Big Apple Walk-in Urgent Care at 3805 Church Ave., began offering the COVID-19 vaccine on March 17. Photo by Leonardo March

God’s Battalion of Prayer in East Flatbush held a pop-up vaccine site in early February, inoculating about 500 seniors.

But Monrose said he did not know of another church in the Clergy Council that has successfully set up a vaccination site. For churches that have the volunteers for setup and cleanup, Monrose said, the city or state can provide medical personnel through their own governmental partnerships. And, he said, more churches are willing to offer the vaccine. 

“Supply remains an issue,” said Victoria Merlino, a spokesperson for the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in a March 17 email. “The City currently has over 400 vaccination sites [citywide] and we will continue to expand as supply allows.” 

To date, the state has opened other temporary pop-up locations in Brooklyn, including at Palmetto Gardens, a housing development in Bushwick that administered the vaccine on March 12. More than 54,000 New Yorkers have received a first dose at a pop-up location, the state has reported.

The governor announced plans to open 300 pop-up sites in the coming weeks, but has not yet announced all of the locations.

Federal efforts also aim to expand supply and a new federal vaccine finder website is slated to launch May 1

But prioritizing longer-term vaccine sites at churches, Monrose said, can make the vaccine available to all, not just those with technology skills and computer access. “The goal is anyone who wants the vaccination before the summer ends should be able to get it in East Flatbush,” said Monrose. 

Given the central role that religion plays in the lives of numerous Haitian-Americans, communities of faith are well-positioned to lead the vaccination effort.

“Education [has] to be done through the churches,” said Dr. Jean-Claude Compas, a retired physician who helped found the Haitian-American COVID-19 Task Force. “A lot of people in our community … they believe, they trust their pastors.”

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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