Miles from huge vaccination sites such as the Nassau Coliseum, tens of thousands of Long Islanders have been receiving their COVID-19 vaccines at the same nonprofit health centers where many of them get their medical care.
Napoleon Coronel Zhiminaicela, 50, got his first COVID-19 vaccine dose on Wednesday at Sun River Health Patchogue, where he has been a patient for more than 19 years. Zhiminaicela, of Medford, said he trusts and likes the doctors and nurses there.
"They take very good care of me for not a lot of money," Zhiminaicela said in Spanish moments after a nurse administered a dose of the Moderna vaccine.
The 10 federally qualified health centers in Suffolk County and six in Nassau are a key part of the vaccination effort, experts and FQHC officials said. More than 41,000 doses have been administered at the 16 Long Island centers, which receive a patchwork of funding, including from patient fees, Medicaid, Medicare, private insurance and government and private grants.
Federal rules require that FQHCs provide care on a sliding scale based on ability to pay and the mandate that they be located in medically underserved areas. Many of their patients are uninsured or underinsured, and some are in the country without legal authorization and may not trust mass vaccination sites where police or National Guard troops help with logistics, said Carlos Ortiz, who oversees the Suffolk centers for the nonprofit, Peekskill-based Sun River.
They are "an ideal vehicle" for vaccinations, said Dr. Brian Harper, a former Suffolk County health commissioner.
"These health care centers have been there for a number of years, and they’ve developed a good rapport with the community, so trust may be less of an issue," said Harper, chief medical officer and vice president for equity and inclusion at the Old Westbury-based New York Institute of Technology.
Many people served by FQHCs would have a hard time accessing health care elsewhere, he said.
In February, the Biden administration began sending vaccines directly to some of the more than 1,300 FQHCs nationwide.
Centers calling patients to get them in
Ortiz, Sun River’s vice president of operations, said the centers have been calling, texting, emailing and sending letters to patients to let them know about the on-site vaccinations, and doctors and nurses have been promoting the vaccines when patients come in for other medical reasons.
That’s an ideal opportunity to encourage patients to get vaccinated, said Reginale Craig, nurse manager at the Westbury health center, which, along with the other Nassau centers, is run by Westbury-based Long Island FQHC.
"Of course, like anyone, they trust their doctors, and they’re able to speak with their doctors and ask them questions with regard to the vaccine," Craig said. "And their doctors are able to advise them and to just reassure them, to give them that type of education, so they feel comfortable as far as receiving the vaccine, and know that if they have any issues, they can always return here to us."
Many patients don’t have cars and may not be able to travel to mass vaccination sites like Jones Beach, and some aren’t tech-savvy and can’t make appointments online, Craig said.
Petrona Lopez, 58, of Franklin Square, was willing to drive to a mass vaccination site, but, like many other Long Islanders, she had a hard time getting an appointment via the state vaccine website, despite hours of trying. A friend told her about the Westbury health center, and she called for an appointment on March 31. She got her first Moderna dose the next day.
Lopez, who has been eager to get vaccinated because she’s a public-facing security guard at an office building and has been working throughout the pandemic, said she was so impressed by her experience at the center — and how it offers care on a sliding scale — that she’s planning to switch from her doctor to the Westbury FQHC.
"They’re very nice here," Lopez said after getting her second dose on Thursday.
Although many of those getting the vaccines at the centers are FQHC patients, others are not. The vaccinations are available to anyone, FQHC officials said.
In Suffolk, a van has been bringing vaccines to homeless shelters and to farmworkers, and 600 seniors were vaccinated in Patchogue at an event geared toward residents of senior independent living housing, Ortiz said.
Patient was waiting for call
Gloria Bonilla, 53, of East Patchogue, said she always had planned to get vaccinated but was waiting for a call from the Patchogue health center, because she wanted to get the vaccine there, where she’s been a patient for more than 20 years. She got the call on April 27 and received the shot the next morning.
"They’ve always taken good care of me here," Bonilla said in Spanish just before getting her first dose.
Experts are concerned that widespread vaccine hesitancy — national polls show a range of between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 adults don’t plan to get inoculated — will stymie efforts to reach herd immunity, when so many people are vaccinated that the spread of the virus becomes much more difficult.
Craig said that, at the Westbury health center, there’s been little resistance to getting vaccinated, a sentiment she attributes to patients’ trust and comfort level with employees.
"We haven’t seen too much hesitancy," she said.