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Advocates step up COVID-19 vaccination efforts among Latinos, and try to dispel fears

Community activists tell us efforts are going to

Community activists tell us efforts are going to inoculate the hard-hit Latino community on Long Island and how they're expanding and evolving outreach efforts as overall supply issues persist. Credit: Newsday / Debbie Egan-Chin

A roaring pandemic once forced Miguel Garzon to close his indoor soccer complex in Brentwood for more than six months.

La Espiguita Soccer Academy was open for business Friday because Garzon lent out his 7,000-square-foot facility to New York State officials, who used it as a site to administer first-dose Pfizer vaccines.

By midmorning, a few dozen people — mostly Latinos — waited for their inoculations in a community that has been among the hardest-hit by COVID-19 on Long Island.

"I am so happy to help my community — because it’s my community," said Garzon, 59, of Dix Hills. "I want it to be safe."

The state-run "pop up" vaccination site in the Suffolk hamlet was indicative of how authorities are ramping up efforts to inoculate Latinos in their neighborhoods on Long Island, while grassroots organizers work to dispel community fears posed by COVID-19 vaccines, officials said.

The coordinated effort from government officials and on-the-ground advocates comes amid an uptick of vaccines arriving on the Island. Community organizers and clergy — seen as the most trusted messengers — are combating wild conspiracies and misinformation about the vaccine, along with jitters among some unauthorized immigrants, officials said.

Despite unique barriers to inoculating eligible Latinos — a group disproportionally affected by COVID-19 deaths and infections — community organizers have been spreading a message about the vaccine’s importance and safety through targeted campaigns such as large-scale email and text-message blasts, online video presentations, and hitting Latino businesses for one-on-one conversations.

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Hispanics represent Long Island’s largest minority, with a combined 535,000 Latinos living in Nassau and Suffolk counties in 2019, according to census estimates.

Fighting myths, fears

Martha Maffei, executive director of the Patchogue-based advocacy group SEPA Mujer, said the organization tracks 3,000 members.

"We are calling them one by one. First, to educate, what is the vaccine, and why it’s important. And then to see if they are eligible for vaccination," Maffei said.

The nonprofit also has hosted informative online discussions and will work to register Latinos as vaccination pop-up sites crop up throughout Suffolk, she said.

But messengers also are fighting against vaccine myths, one being that inoculations are a government plot to sterilize Hispanic women, Maffei said.

"This is what they heard — this is what they’re hearing," she said.

Workers within industries with a large Latino labor force, including grocery store and restaurant employees, are now eligible for vaccination.

Some Hispanics who could get the vaccine said it was a no-brainer.

"I felt like I won the lottery," said Idaly Cardona, 45. She received her first shot Feb. 19 at a neighborhood church in East Hampton and said in Spanish: "It was a blessing. I’m at high risk. I could die."

Cardona is a breast cancer survivor who was among 260 vaccinated at the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church. She said representatives with OLA of Eastern Long Island — an immigrant advocacy group based in Sagaponack — reached her to give her details about the pop-up site.

Skepticism of the vaccine among some Latinos, especially those who are unauthorized immigrants, is real, Cardona said.

"There is a lot of fear," she said. "A lot of people think if you come get the vaccine they’re going to ask for your papers."

Neither citizenship status nor medical insurance is required for vaccination, officials said.

Of the 260 vaccinated like Cardona, about 145 were registered through OLA, said the group’s executive director, Minerva Perez.

The pop-up centers are an essential way for Hispanics to get the vaccines, especially in some areas of Eastern Suffolk with limited public transportation, she said.

"The issues for the East End of Long Island, public transportation is little to none. That transportation aspect is one that compounds access," Perez said.

Hispanics in Nassau County face similar problems. That’s why the impromptu vaccination centers are key, officials said.

Pop-up sites are "absolutely" a priority "with eyes to Hispanic communities," Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said last week.

To that end, county personnel on Thursday are collaborating with Glen Cove workers to distribute 500 vaccines at a church. Another 500 doses are tentatively slated to be distributed Saturday at a Westbury church, county officials said.

"Every vaccine we have gotten, we have gotten into an arm," Curran said. "We have not wasted one dose."

According to state data, about 17.3% of the county’s 1.35 million residents have received one vaccine shot — about 234,000 people — as of Friday afternoon. Comparatively in Suffolk, more than 197,000 people have received one dose, or about 13.3% of its 1.48 million residents, records show.

Both counties are reporting significant upticks in vaccines. Nassau officials said there was a 37% increase in vaccinations between Feb. 8 and Wednesday, compared with the same period in January. Suffolk officials said they expected to administer 10,670 vaccine first doses last week. That included 5,300 first doses that didn't reach the county the prior week because of winter storms. A week before that, the county was allotted 2,700 first doses.

Getting the word out

Even with more vaccines on Long Island, organizers have been pounding the pavement to make sure they are used.

Suffolk Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter said a group of 10 people, which included three county staffers and seven volunteers with Latina Moms of Long Island, took to the streets Feb. 20 in Brentwood and popped into bodegas to shoot down myths and encourage vaccinations.

Baird-Streeter said the fully bilingual group identified dozens of bodegas in Brentwood and Central Islip in the campaign. They also plan to expand outreach to Patchogue and Huntington Station, she said.

The one-on-one interactions are invaluable, Baird-Streeter said.

"People have the opportunity to speak to someone in their native language," she said. "If there is a hesitancy that exists, if there is a fear that exists, you want people to be as comfortable as possible."

Baird-Streeter called the initiative "extremely well received" and said some bodega owners hung up informative flyers from their storefronts that encourage vaccinations.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone told Newsday last week that getting vaccinated is the only way to return to a life resembling the days before COVID-19.

"All the pain and trauma and devastation that we have witnessed, we can put all of that behind us by simply getting vaccinated," he said.

He also said the state’s decision last month making more essential workers eligible for vaccination, including those in critical jobs held by a large Hispanic workforce, was a nod to some Latinos who have risked their health for so long to keep society afloat.

"We talked about how essential employers were critical for us during the pandemic, prioritizing them during vaccination is a way to demonstrate those words have meaning," Bellone said. "Prioritizing those workers was absolutely the right thing to do."

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