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Beating back vaccine fears

The COVID-19 vaccination sites at Jones Beach.

The COVID-19 vaccination sites at Jones Beach. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

The fear and uncertainty run deep.

The communities hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic now are the same ones who are very hesitant or outright resistant to take a COVID-19 vaccine. If those trends persist, particularly among Black and Hispanic individuals, it’s going to be impossible for the nation, the state or the region to reach herd immunity, the level necessary if the pandemic is ever to be overcome. That’s especially true given the mutant strains that have begun to spread.

New York’s latest step, to partner with the federal government in establishing specific sites and vaccine doses for "socially vulnerable" communities, is an important start. Also key, state officials have promised significant outreach to go along with it.

But a just-concluded survey by Siena College for nextLI, a Newsday initiative focused on key policy questions that impact the region, shows just how difficult that endeavor will be. Nearly half of Black Long Islanders, and more than half of Hispanic Long Islanders, say they either won’t take the COVID-19 vaccine, or aren’t sure, according to the study. Only 8% of Black and Hispanic respondents have taken the vaccine, compared with 14% of white respondents.

While the statistics show an improvement from a similar nextLI survey taken during the summer, before any vaccines were approved, they still form a troubling picture of just how much work there is to be done to combat misinformation, allay fears and convince a wide swath of scared and vulnerable communities who don’t have the correct information, or don’t place enough trust in the government or scientific research to feel comfortable taking the vaccine. Too many think the vaccines were rushed, which they weren’t, or fear harmful effects, which haven’t come to pass. The nation’s ugly history with medical experimentation on minority communities also is a legacy that must be overcome.

State and federal officials say they hope to establish vaccine sites beyond the initial spots in Queens and Brooklyn announced Wednesday, to take advantage of the extra allotment of doses from Washington, focused on vulnerable communities. They should consider locations in Nassau and Suffolk counties, where thousands have died and where vaccine hesitancy always has been an issue, but clearly is exacerbated now. That must be paired with an enormous public awareness and messaging campaign from trusted community members.

Their message must be clear: The vaccines are safe. They’re effective. They shouldn’t be feared. And they’re the only way this region will get back to "normal." What does "normal" mean? Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gave a hint Wednesday when he announced that arenas like Nassau Coliseum could reopen to fans at 10% capacity soon. And this week, New York City restaurants can open their doors to indoor dining.

Let’s answer the questions and address the fears. Then, let’s imagine a Nassau Coliseum safely filled with fans or concert-goers, a restaurant filled with patrons, a gathering with family or friends, and an economy on the rebound.

But first, we have to get the shot.

— The editorial board