Coronavirus (Covid-19) and testing: Our vaccine van takes a primary role as a test provider

Filed Under: Costs, Health plans, Patients

vaccine bus photo

Looking back over the last year, our Covid work has taught us some really important and interesting things, culminating in our five months helping distribute vaccines an undervaccinated neighborhood in New York City.

We started the year in a flurry of reporting on why people were having a hard time getting access to the new Covid vaccine. Through the spring, we reported on the botched rollout — and then into the summer, engaged in a discussion about why there were so many unvaccinated people, and about how to extend the vaccine uptake.

That morphed into a series of grant applications, including one that landed us a part of the Vaccine Equity Partner Engagement project under a grant from The Fund for Public Health in NYC, in partnership with Epicenter-NYC, a Queens hyperlocal news organization, and TBN24, the first Bangla live 24-7 television station in North America, available worldwide.

Here are some of the things we learned.

One: The unvaccinated are not who you think they are. People who haven’t been vaccinated are not a roiling mass of uniformity. There are many reasons that people don’t get vaccinated.

We met these people:

  • A man whose wife had been critically ill for 2 months, and he stayed by her bedside rather than venturing out to get vaccinated
  • A woman whose husband has Alzheimer’s, and she focuses everything in the family on him
  • A number of people who hadn’t gotten vaccinated because it’s not that easy to go through all the steps  (find, register, schedule) — but when they found our van, they signed up immediately
  • A single mom who wanted to vaccinate her kids, but whose only available time slots are on a Sunday morning (when our van is available as a walk-in, while other vaccine locations are not or are far away)

Our van  is primarily designed to make vaccines more accessible as part of a grant to expand vaccine uptake in undervaccinated neighborhoods. 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 ClearHealthCosts, Epicenter-NYC and TBN24.

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Two: Testing matters in the fight against Covid. Public health officials have said over and over again that the struggle against Covid needs to include vaccines, testing, masking and distancing as primary tools, along with other approaches. Our  van has become a primary source of testing for the neighborhood, in the throes of the Omicron surge and people’s need to get tested to travel and gather for the holidays.

When we thought to include testing in our van, in October, we viewed it as an add-on. The New York City Health + Hospitals Test and Trace staff added testing at our request. But it was little used — three people here, four there, amid a steady stream of vaccines — 60, 70, even 215 one day.

Then in the week before Christmas, the testing demand exploded. On Sunday, Dec. 22, at the van, there was a constant line of people waiting to get tested. Since the van staff can’t both vaccinate and test at the same time, we had different groups of people wanting different services — with those seeking tests waiting in one line and those receiving vaccines stepping into the van for their shot.

That day, we vaccinated about 125 people and tested  about 300. The van ran out of testing supplies several times, and was able to give out free in-home test kits as long as the supply lasts. How long will it last? As long as the surge lasts, at least: There’s a shortage of tests nationwide.

Three: Mandates work. Our busiest vaccine days at the van were in the fall, right before vaccine mandates kicked in in New York City: You had to be vaccinated or lose your job. People who had not wanted to do it before chose to get vaccinated

Four: People are afraid. The surge with the Omicron variant has brought an increase in the number of people getting vaccinated. We have seen this before: In September, when the numbers started to climb,   people came to get vaccinated. One woman told us she had read in The New York Post how bad it was out there, and she decided to get vaccinated after months of hesitation.

Now, in the end of the year, the vaccine numbers are rising again.

People who hadn’t wanted to get vaccinated before are changing their minds.

Five: It’s probably worse out there than you think it is.  We’re in New York, and it’s proving to once again be the epicenter of the epidemic surge. Every map shows New York City as being one of the hottest of hotspots — perhaps because we’re so close together, and Covid travels fast between people who are close together.

We’ve been seeing a lot of reports of people who tested positive on an at-home test and could not get a PCR test because the labs are overloaded. Those people with positive at-home tests are being told to act as if they have it, and not bother to seek a PCR test for confirmation if they have symptoms — because the system is overloaded, and because if they venture out, they risk bestowing their Covid germs on others. So they are not being reported as positive cases — meaning there’s a big undercount.

We’re also hearing a lot of people who can’t get the in-home tests since there is a national shortage — and who are being told by medical professionals to assume they have it and act accordingly.

And to the rest of the country: This will be coming to you soon. Just as in March of 2020, when the rest of the nation looked on in horror (quietly saying, “That will never happen here”) we are certain history will repeat itself.

Read more stories of people getting vaccinated at our Queens site here, in our earlier story about the first vaccine van we ran, and here in a follow-up.

Read even more from our partner, S. Mitra Kalita, the publisher of Epicenter-NYC and our partner on the grant: “The 7 truths about vaccines right now.”

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When we were setting up our van arrangements with the New York City Test + Trace folks, part of the New York Health+Hospitals empire, they asked us what vaccine we wanted. They said probably two, not all three. We picked two:  Johnson & Johnson is one and done,  Pfizer was then for people 12 and up, and later 5- to 11-year olds as well. Moderna is for people 16 and up. So there would be more willing arms with Pfizer than with Moderna.

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.

The tally so far:

Sept. 23: 60 vaccinated
Sept. 26: 60 vaccinated
Sept. 29: 70 vaccinated
Oct. 3: 61 vaccinated
Oct. 6: No van
Oct. 10: 50 vaccinated, handful tested, cold and rainy (first day we offered testing?)
Oct. 13: 60-70 vaccinated
Oct. 17: 114 vaccinated
Oct. 20: 70 vaccinated= 39P + 31JJ
Oct. 24: 213 vaccinated
Oct. 27: 50 vaccinated
Oct. 31: 52 vaccinated, Halloween, mandates required shots by Oct. 29
Nov. 3: 25 vaccinated
Nov. 4: 33 vaccinated; first van at Queens Village LIRR station.
Nov. 7: 127 vaccinated
Nov. 10: 28 vaccinated. This was scheduled to be adult van and first day of kids van. Kids van then canceled unexpectedly.
Nov. 11: Second LIRR. Canceled.
Nov. 14: 38 adults, 8 kids — Adult van and first day of kids van at Wayanda/SS Joachim and Anne
Nov. 17: 50 vaccinated
Nov. 18: Third LIRR. 33 total vaccines
Nov 21: 40 vaccinated
Sunday, Nov. 28: Adults only 33 total; 28 Pfizer and 5 JnJ
Dec. 5: 38. Pfizer 20+ J&J 10
Dec. 12: 64. Pfizer 17, J&J 14. Second shots 9, boosters 24
Dec. 15: 41 vaccinated but 60 tested. First-time Pfizer 9, J&J 5; second shots 7; Boosters 20.
Dec. 19: 63 vaccinated. First-timers Pfizer 55, J&J 8.
Dec. 22: Outside church, 79 vaccinated; inside the church with Sun River Health, 45 vaccinated. About 300 tested.
Dec. 26: 153 vaccinated. Pfizer 83, J&J 70. Around 150 people tested, around 40 positive.
Dec. 29: Van canceled with no notice