COVID-19 Vaccine Bus NYC

By Jeanne Pinder, Sree Bhagavan, Bifen Xu 

We learn the most amazing things at our Covid vaccine outreach van in Queens Village.

On Sunday, we met Sophia and Robert from Queens Village.  Sophia brought Robert, who had been vaccine reluctant all along and wanted to leave.  When we asked Sophia what changed Robert’s mind, she said, “Patience, constant encouragement and speaking to him about the difficulties he would face if he contracted the virus while remaining unvaccinated.”  Robert was done in 20 minutes and the happy couple left laughing.

A little later, Jean Claude and Anatte Valeus from Queens Village, both in their 70s, stopped by with their daughter, Jinette Janvier, to get vaccinated.  When we asked why they had waited this long and why today, Jinette said that their priest in Golgotha Church in Queens Village nudged them not to wait any longer and go straight to our vaccine bus after the service.  While the couple were inside the van, we asked Janvier why she thought people are still unvaccinated. She said most of their church members are vaccinated and those who remain are mostly fearful. She knows someone who left for Haiti because he didn’t want to take the vaccine.

There’s vaccine hesitancy (“I’m still thinking about it”) and vaccine refusal (“No, not ever”) and a lot of people at places in between. But there are also a lot of people who haven’t gotten the vaccine because it was inconvenient: In Queens Village, zip code 11429,  there are two vaccine locations, a Rite-Aid and a Walgreens. Neither takes walk-ins consistently, if at all.

Wednesday, Sept. 22, marked the first of our series of pop-up vaccine sites in Queens Village, a partnership of our organizations with New York City Test and Trace to bring Pfizer and J&J doses to this pocket of southeast Queens. We have finished five days — Wednesday, Sept. 22; Sunday, Sept. 26; Wednesday, Sept. 29;  Sunday, Oct. 3; and Sunday, Oct. 10.

Our next events: Oct. 13, 17, 20, 24, 27 and 31; all include vaccines and Covid-19 testing. Location: At the corner of Robard Lane and Hollis Avenue, Near Ss. Joachim & Anne Church and Wayanda Park, 217-72 Hollis Ave., Queens Village, NY 11429. Vaccines offered: Pfizer (for ages 12 and up) and Johnson & Johnson (for ages 18 and up). COVID-19 tests will also be offered.

We are doing this work in Queens Village as part of a grant called the Vaccine Equity Partner Engagement program, with The Fund for Public Health in NYC and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, funded by Centers for Disease Control money. Our three media organizations partnering in the grant are Epicenter-NYC, ClearHealthCosts and TBN24.

What we’ve learned

We think it’s been a success, particularly since the consistent narrative in recent months has been “everyone who wanted to get vaccinated has already.” That is in no way true.<

First: Each of the four days, we had 60-70 people come to get vaccinated. Some days we had to turn people away because the van had to leave at 6. On the fifth day, Oct. 10, it was cold and rainy; we still had 50 people come.

People want to get vaccinated. They are coming back, sending their kids, telling their friends.  We are doing this work in a small part of Queens with little  official announcement or support, and a lot of thought and a great ground game, thanks to our terrific team and partnerships in the local community. People want to get vaccinated; we have to make it easier for them. Some hand holding/coaxing/just listening goes a long way. We did also learn that, once we made it easy for people to come, those who got vaccinated went home and told their family members, friends and all.

Second:  Mandates work. A lot of people came in saying that they had been reluctant to get vaccinated, but the city mandate that they had to get vaccinated or lose their job — which went into effect recently for New York City health workers and school employees — was a big impetus.

The people who came

Three women came saying that they knew their school jobs were lost if they didn’t get vaccinated. They brought the school nurse with them to help soothe their anxieties.

We met a woman whose husband died of Covid and told us she was upset that people were resisting vaccination.

One woman who came said she was hesitant because she had heard the vaccine was an experiment on African-Americans. But she told us she had read in The New York Post that the Covid situation was getting bad, and she decided to get vaccinated.

A woman from the Rockaways said she had come to get vaccinated to protect her 3-year-old son. Her husband was with her; first he refused, and then decided to get vaccinated.

Read more stories of people getting vaccinated here, in our earlier story about the first pop-up we ran.

Read even more from our partner, S. Mitra Kalita, at Epicenter-NYC on this story: “The 7 truths about vaccines right now.”

How we did it

Some of the things we’ve learned about why people get vaccinated, and how to put together a good on-the-ground vaccine outreach program, are below.

  1. We have a great partner: The New York City Test and Trace folks have been very accommodating in sending us their van, with helpful staff, for each engagement. The van is medium-sized, painted brightly and very inviting. Test and Trace staff register people, do paperwork and so on.
  2. Consistency helps. We have had a van in the same place Wednesdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for several weeks. People know they can come back (we emphasize that with our flyers). Pop-ups are hard for people to plan around.
  3. Publicize it! We plastered the neighborhood with flyers, in English and Spanish. We leaflet on the street, staple them on phone poles, hang in businesses to announce our coming dates. We’ve even done some leafleting to cars traveling on busy streets near the van. People know we’ll be there and they can come back another day. One-off pop-ups seem fine, but consistency really works.
  4. We’re making the $100 city vaccine incentive available. There is no other location in the 11429 zip code where someone can consistently get it — the only two vaccine sites in that zip code, the Rite-Aid and Walgreens, don’t offer it. So we put that on our flyer to make sure people know. (Rite-Aid and Walgreens also don’t offer walk-ins; you have to register online, and that’s a barrier.)
  5. Location counts. Our team on the ground scoped out locations, and picked this one near Wayanda Park and the SS Jochim and Anne parish, with its school and a neighboring public school. A worse location with less foot traffic would mean fewer vaccines.
  6. Local knowledge counts. Speaking Haitian Creole and Spanish here in this zip code helps tremendously. The head nurse in the van one day was from this community.   She knew quite a few people who came to get their vaccines. It was so nice to see them being totally surprised and hugging. Familiar location, familiar faces and language are important.
  7. Documentation can change the game. It’s important for volunteers to be extremely familiar with what the city requires for documentation, especially for underaged people. You should know the rules back and forth because sometimes people don’t and that can result in a loss of someone being vaccinated.
  8. It was cold and rainy on Sunday, Oct. 10. We’re thinking about getting a canopy tent, maybe with a small heater and a table for this work to continue in the winter months.
  9. Keep it simple. Keep it easy. Keep it consistent.

Jeanne Pinder

Jeanne Pinder  is the founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts. She worked at The New York Times for almost 25 years as a reporter, editor and human resources executive, then volunteered for a buyout and founded...