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COVID-19 vaccine skeptics are focus of Hudson Valley's education, outreach efforts

“If you don't take it, you're kind of playing Russian roulette," - Wilbur Aldridge of the NAACP for Westchester on the vaccine for COVID-19.

Steve Lieberman Saba Ali Chris McKenna
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Across the Hudson Valley, people are questioning whether to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as public health authorities and government leaders work to assure the public that doing so is safe.

Vaccinations currently are only available to hospital-based health care workers, but health advocates are ramping up outreach efforts to assuage the fears of the public, especially those groups with a history of vaccination hesitancy.  They are also monitoring the attitudes of health care workers, who, as the first in line, will help set the tone for those who will not roll up their sleeves for weeks.

People of color, poor people, religious communities and older people are the focus.  

Melissa Whitaker at her home in City of Poughkeepsie on December 16, 2020. Due to the COVID-19 vaccine's unknown issues and having a family member with preexisting conditions, Whitaker wants to hold off on getting the vaccine until more is known about possible side effects.

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Health care workers are looked at as ambassadors who can encourage others to follow in their steps.

Rockland County spokesman John Lyon said county officials hope people take the vaccine when it's offered.

"We're hopeful seeing people receiving the vaccination will help convince anyone who is hesitant," Lyon said. "People who are on the very front lines since this began are lining up to get vaccinated. They know how dangerous this disease is and they are willing to get vaccinated to protect themselves, their families and their patients."

However, some workers in those front-line professions have voiced concerns, and some of their organizations say they may struggle to even inoculate half of their staff.

Melissa Whitaker, a licensed practical nurse from Poughkeepsie, is one who needs convincing. 

“Apparently from how it’s been explained to me, you get sick after the second (dosage) and I don't have sick time available right now,” said Whitaker.

Whitaker feels uncomfortable because the vaccine is new, was made relatively quickly and there isn’t much research on the long-term effects. “It’s the fear of the unknown,” Whitaker said. 

Whitaker said ArchCare at Ferncliff Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center, where she works, provided staff with consent forms. Ferncliff plans to administer the vaccine through its pharmacy provider, Pharmscript, starting Monday.

“We continue to try to help them understand the facts. We’re not giving opinions. We refer them to the documents and try to help walk them through as needed,” said Executive Director Michael Deyo.

He said, as of Thursday, 112 residents out of 270 have consented to taking the vaccine, and 71 of 300 staff members have consented.

VA Hudson Valley Health Care System employs roughly 1,300 at their Castle Point and Montrose campuses and community clinics throughout the region. About half the staff responded to a survey administered by the health care provider as of Wednesday.

Of those who responded, a little under a half "indicated that they are undecided or not inclined to receive the vaccine at this time," stated Cullen Lyons, spokesperson for the HV Hudson Valley Health Care System. 

"We have communicated the benefits of receiving the vaccination and shared resources from VA and the CDC, but receiving the vaccine remains voluntary for our staff and veterans," Lyons said. “Everything we are doing now to protect the staff and veterans is going to continue even after the vaccine is administered. There won’t be any major changes. It won’t be like we would be quarantining someone or separating veterans who do not receive the vaccine."

Emergency medical service providers come into contact with COVID-19 positive patients, and those suspected of being positive, nearly every day. Many of those who work at Mobile Life Support Services, which serves Dutchess, Rockland, Orange and Ulster, have already contracted the virus.

Scott Woebse, president of Mobile Life Support Services, said about half his staff are willing to take the vaccine.

“I think the other half are just wait-and-see because of the how rapidly this was put out. There are some people who, you know, may be skeptical about whether it's going to work and they're kind of waiting to see if there are short-term implications,” he said, noting members of his staff who felt nervous about the vaccine were declining to speak on the record.

Len Russ, the administrator of Bayberry Care Center in New Rochelle, said many of his employees are overcoming their skepticism about the virus vaccination. The senior community facility provided employees with the science behind the shots as well as discussions with Walgreens representatives, its business partner in the vaccinations.

Russ doesn't believe the facility will get 100% of its 80-plus employees. His facility cares for 60 clients and many of them and their families have signed consents for the vaccinations.

"People through nine months of the pandemic have friends and family members who have had it and had bad consequences," he said. "People here are fatigued with being tested every week. We're eager to see if we've turned the corner. We're more optimistic today than a week ago. We're aiming for 100% participation."

He said the first vaccinations are scheduled for Dec. 29.

A focus on communities of color

In all Hudson Valley counties, government leaders say they will invest resources to reach out to communities of color. However, they acknowledge they can only inform residents, not force them to take it.

“Our goal here is to explain the science, explain the effectiveness, answer the questions that help people choose to be vaccinated, but it is their choice,” said Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro. “We know that communication is best trusted source to trusted source, and these are trusted community members that can speak directly to friends and neighbors in a way they’ll feel comfortable with."

Dutchess County will be forming a coalition of community leaders, much like what was done for the census, to reach out to the diverse communities within the county.

County officials believe the main role of their local health departments will be to convince the public that the vaccine is safe. Over the coming weeks county officials will be looking for ways to put health professionals in front of the public to answer questions and talk about the science behind the vaccine.

Marc Molinaro, the county executive for Dutchess County, said an outreach program about the COVID-19 vaccine will focus on communities of color.

Molinaro said the outreach is going to focus on “Black and brown communities, but also those who don’t have direct access to health care.”

In Westchester, Deputy Health Commissioner Renée Recchia said people of color are a prime target for vaccinations.

"Black and brown persons were certainly more impacted back in the spring with the virus," she said. "We clearly want to make sure that community is taken care of, as well as the general populations."

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that fewer than half of Black respondents polled would get the vaccine, the lowest of any ethnic group. Overall confidence has risen to more than 60%, the survey found.

Yet Black communities are among those suffering the most with the virus.

The Rev. Frank E. Coleman, pastor of the Messiah Baptist Church, the first Black Baptist church in Yonkers, said the majority of his 200 congregants were skeptical about the vaccine.

Coleman said the mistrust was rooted in history.

“We were talking about the vaccine and right away, one of our seniors mentioned the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment,” said Coleman. “He said, ‘I'm not taking the vaccine. I remember what they did to us before. And so we were having a lot of that in our congregation, of those kinds of doubt.”

The Tuskegee study was conducted between 1932 and 1972. Members of the U.S. Public Health Service followed African American men infected with syphilis and didn’t treat them so they could see the natural progression of the disease. Meanwhile, they told the men in the study they were receiving free health care from the federal government.

“We're doubting, because we still remember history and because our people really have a problem trusting the system,” he said.

Coleman said he was advising his congregants to not “give up” on the vaccine.

“I told them, if you want to wait and make sure that others take it and it is OK and that others are not dying from it or those kinds of things, that’s fine,” he said. “Hopefully, it’ll give them enough confidence to take the vaccine, but that's really what's happening in our community.”

Based on the evidence, Wilbur Aldridge of the NAACP, hopes people of color will decide to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

Wilbur Aldridge, NAACP’s regional director for Westchester, said the organization was in the midst of drafting a statement to all their members indicating that they recommend taking the vaccine.

“Based upon the science and the medical advice, we suggest that people of color and others certainly do take the vaccine. We are the folks who have the underlying issues due to the fact that medical care within our communities has been lacking,” he said. “If you don't take it, you're kind of playing Russian roulette. Thus far, there have been no real major adverse effects on anyone after taking the vaccine. So there really is no reason not to take it, especially considering the underlying issues in our community.”

Willie Trotman of the Spring Valley NAACP hopes people of color will be moved up on the list to get vaccinations.

Spring Valley NAACP President Willie Trotman hopes poor people will get moved up on the list for vaccinations. He said he has no issues with first-responders and medical personnel getting the shots first.

People of color and poorer residents were hardest hit with the virus, with the death toll high.

"We don’t know the pecking order yet," Trotman said. "Many people who are very poor don’t have access to medical care and insurance and will need vaccinations very badly. ... We hope we can reach down and lift those people up."

Vaccine outreach to poor, Latino communities

Dr. Daren Wu, chief medical officer at the federally qualified Open Door Medical Center, said the center was planning on a “massive effort” to educate its community on the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Daren Wu is the chief medical officer at Open Door

Two-thirds of the patients at Open Door, which serves nearly 57,000 patients from Westchester and Putnam counties, live below the poverty line. More than 75% of the patients who visit the center identify as Hispanic/Latino. 

“We have a really strong history of doing a great job of vaccinating adolescents and adults alike. We emphasize preventative and primary care. We don't just casually mention vaccinations, like, do you want one? And someone says, ‘No,’ we just move on,” he said. “Our patients are among the most vulnerable and that's why we take this vaccination and all vaccinations in general very seriously.”

So far, Open Door has treated more than 2,000 patients who contracted coronavirus.

The center has had 22 COVID-19-related deaths and continues to add more than 100 positive cases every week, Wu said. But he believes vaccine hesitancy will be less among his population because they have experienced the virus.

“The lower-income patients that the center serves are the ones who work in grocery stores and restaurants and gas stations. When they are sick, they don’t have paid time off. So they often continue to work as long as they can't put food on the table,” he said. “So our patients are the ones who are taking the brunt of it.”

Open Door is planning to produce a bilingual video campaign about the vaccine just as they did at the start of the pandemic on how to stay safe.

“We’ll also be creating informational handouts for patients in English and Spanish. We send out lots of text message blasts for regular things like cancer screening, flu tests, flu, etc.,” he said. “We'll be doing a text campaign for COVID vaccinations as well.”

Rockland ramps up efforts

When the measles epidemic hit Rockland County in 2019, the county government worked with community groups to offer education about vaccinations.

Rockland spokesperson Lyon said the government is again planning an educational campaign once a vaccine is available to the general public. He said the department will be working closely with partner agencies like nonprofits, community organizations and municipalities.

“Rockland County is just one small piece of the puzzle when it comes to vaccination, but we expect to see statewide and national outreach campaigns and will fully support those efforts," he said. 

Ramapo Supervisor Michael Specht said he is working on a get-out-the-message plan to the public with the town's public health commissioner, Dr. Mary Leahy, the CEO of Bon Secours Charity Health System, which operates Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern.

Ramapo also gained experience during the measles epidemic at promoting vaccinations within the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic communities.

Yossi Gestetner, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, sees no particular aversion to the COVID vaccine in Orthodox communities. He stressed that Hasidic Jews generally have no religious or cultural objections to or suspicion of vaccines.

“During the measles outbreak, the data supported that at least 96% of Hasidim vaccinated," Gestetner said. "However, in every community and every way of life you have people who rejected vaccines outright or are skeptical.” 

Convincing older people

Frank Abraham’s doctor told him that he should “do what you think is right” when it comes to the vaccine.

The 88-year-old retired plumber who lives by himself in Red Hook had already decided he would get vaccinated when the time comes.

He’d gathered enough information from watching television, reading and listening to the radio.

Throughout the pandemic, Abraham has managed the best he could, taking safety steps such as shopping for groceries during the morning times slotted for seniors. What he missed the most were the social gathering like his church prayer breakfast.

“I was very, very active before the virus was here. I was very active and now I’m only about 20% as active,” Abraham said. 

Abraham was worried about the vaccine initially, but is more comfortable now having learned more about the shot. 

“I figured it be at least six or nine months for me to be offered the injection, there are a lot of people more important that I, nurses, doctors, public officials,” he said.

“The generation residing in nursing homes grew up with mandatory polio, measles and (tuberculosis) vaccinations at school. It really wasn’t an option to object,” said Kathryn Salensky, an attorney who operates the Mid Hudson Elder Justice Project and George's Justice hotline, which provides advocacy services to seniors in Dutchess, Columbia and Greene counties.

Salensky hasn’t heard of any seniors objecting to taking the vaccine but understands the hesitancy.

“(The) choice to take a necessary vaccination is just another subtly surrendered personal freedom,” she said.

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy contributed to this story.