Trolley rolls into under-vaccinated Schenectady neighborhoods to continue COVID fight

Holden Townsel of Rotterdam is vaccinated by Schenectady County Public Health Services registered nurse Taylor Taranto as his father, Neal, watches Thursday outside the Schenectady Community Ministries food pantry.
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Holden Townsel of Rotterdam is vaccinated by Schenectady County Public Health Services registered nurse Taylor Taranto as his father, Neal, watches Thursday outside the Schenectady Community Ministries food pantry.

SCHENECTADY — The fluorescent yellow sign set up along Albany Street radiates the afternoon sunlight, making the block letters stand out all the more boldly:

VACCINE HERE

A slow but steady stream of people walk or drive into the parking lot to roll up their sleeves, drawn by the sign or, more likely, people telling them there would be a pop-up vaccination clinic that day at the Schenectady Community Ministries food pantry in Hamilton Hill.

That afternoon, Schenectady County was tied for the highest adult COVID vaccination rate in the state — nearly three out of four adult residents have received at least one dose.

The percentage in Hamilton Hill is much lower, though. In response, Schenectady County Public Health Services, CDTA and MVP Health Care have begun a mobile clinic that is bringing the vaccine to this and other neighborhoods where the vaccination rate is lagging.

It’s something that needs to happen regardless of the neighborhood: The days of vaccinating 500 or 700 people in a single session at a central location are over, likely forever. A successful POD, or point of dispensing, is now measured in dozens of doses.

The inaugural run Thursday saw MVP and county Public Health personnel riding in the distinctive CDTA trolley bus to two sites in the least-vaccinated ZIP code in Schenectady County — 12307, Hamilton Hill and Vale. The next stop will be Sunday, May 23, from noon to 4 p.m. in the Yates Village housing complex on the city’s Northside.

FEAR AND HESITATION

“I’m terrified of needles, honestly, I just don’t want to be vaccinated,” said Holden Townsel, one of the first in line Thursday. “I especially don’t want to do the two-shot vaccination, so I thought the one-shot would be perfect.”

Townsel had various motivations for getting the single-dose Johnston & Johnson vaccination Thursday. For starters, he wants to do his weightlifting without a mask on and he’s starting a new job at Ellis Hospital next week.

But there was also a skepticism about vaccines, said his father, Neal. He told his son (and he tells other people) that the chance of side effects from the vaccine is less than the chance of catching COVID.

“Something’s going to happen to somebody,” Neal Townsel said of blood clots that the CDC determined afflict about eight out of 1 million recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, almost all of them women under age 50. “But if you want to save your life and save others, I advise you to just get it.

“I would rather have to deal with the side effects of that than to get sick or get someone sick. Because I’ve lost two people already. When you see them saying their last goodbye it makes you think.”

Neal got his vaccine in April. When he heard about Thursday’s POD, he brought Holden in.

THE NUMBERS

As of midday Friday, 94,203 Schenectady County residents had received at least one dose of COVID vaccine — 74.2% of the adult population and 60.6% of the total population.

Fifteen of those doses were administered Thursday at the CDTA trolley’s first stop, at the Bornt Branch of the Schenectady County Public Library, and 20 at the second stop, in the SiCM parking lot.

By comparison, 63.0% of adults have at least one dose statewide and 60.5% nationwide.

Schenectady County’s larger neighbors are doing well — about 71% of adults in both Albany and Saratoga counties have had at least one dose. Its smaller neighbors, not so much: 49% and 43% are at least partially vaccinated in Montgomery and Schoharie counties, respectively.

In the 12307 ZIP code, only 43.3% of residents age 15 or older have received at least one dose, the lowest percentage in Schenectady County. The county’s highest rate — 79.7% — is in the 12309 ZIP code, which is mostly Niskayuna.

REACHING OUT

Claire Proffitt, supervising public health nurse for Schenectady County, said the vaccination campaign is still going strong even as it grows more closely focused.

“I think the place where we’ve really pivoted to, and been really successful with, is instead of trying to do larger-scale PODs is bringing the vaccine out into the community,” she said.

Key to this is engaging community partners to reach out to the community.

“Think about it more as not just, ‘We’re here and come to us to get your vaccine,’ but really building relationships with the community,” she said.

On Thursday, for example, Public Health Services reached out to owners of nearby bodegas and other shops and asked them to tell their customers about the PODs coming that day.

Two of the county nurses working at PODs are bilingual, which also is helpful. One of them is a former Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, an experience that gave her skills making connections across cultural and community lines.

“For me it feels like we’ve really managed to find the strengths within our department and utilize that to get to people who otherwise are not going to get vaccinated,” Proffitt said.

HOLDOUTS

Thursday’s PODs drew people who live in the neighborhood and people who live across town or out of town.

The Townsels, for example, are Rotterdam residents.

John Murray, by contrast, walked down Albany Street from his nearby home.

The native of Guyana lost a brother and an aunt in Brooklyn to COVID and decided to protect himself with the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

He made not a wince as it was pumped into his shoulder.

“I’m not afraid of needles,” he said, mentioning a stubborn eye infection he once had. “I had injection after injection after injection.”

Sharon Carter, meanwhile, is a resident of Schenectady’s Northside.

“I came out because they’re doing the Johnson & Johnson,” she said. “It’s one and done, and it’s hard enough coming down to get the one shot without having to come down again.”

Carter was hesitant more in the sense of not being able to get the vaccine than not trusting it. She is aware of potential side effects but mainly she just couldn’t get an appointment for the vaccine she wanted.

“People couldn’t get online, they couldn’t get appointments, I just said the heck with it, and kicked it to the future. Now the future is here,” Carter said.

She thinks mixed messages about the vaccine’s effects and efficacy have stoked a vaccine reluctance within some people.

“Most people I know are getting it and the few that aren’t are adamant that they’re not getting it.”

She was accompanied Thursday by her great-grandson, Nashaan Howard, who recently completed his own vaccination series. He couldn’t get an appointment on his own, so he got it through Schenectady High School, which he attends.

Asked about the general sentiment in his age group, he said most of them take the disease seriously but not all trust the vaccine.

“I have some friends that don’t really believe in vaccines at all, I have some that have already gotten it, and I have some that are just a little hesitant,” Howard said.

For him, it went smoothly — just some fatigue the day after dose No. 2.

ANTI-VAX

The anti-vaccine movement is alive and well amid the worst public health crisis in a century, if not evenly concentrated across the state and nation.

Anecdotes and statistics suggest a particularly robust streak in nearby Fulton County, for example, which has the third-lowest vaccination rate in the state.

Whether through fear or distrust of science or government, or simply a self-determination to not let anyone dictate what happens to their bodies, some people will not be taking the vaccine. Period.

Asked if there’s anti-vax sentiment in Schenectady County, despite the high vaccination rate, Proffitt said: “Yes. Definitely.”

“Even today we had some very interesting conversations with people who had either fears or suspicions about what they think the vaccines are,” she said.

“We’ve done a lot with motivational interviewing, where you really work to just appreciate what their concerns are and how to work through those as opposed to just telling them that they should get vaccinated. So we’ve definitely seen people change their minds.”

Personal health and public health have been the obvious motivations for vaccination, but convenience has emerged as a factor too.

“At this point, honestly, there’s people who are getting it just because they want to return to normal,” Proffitt said.

PUBLIC HEALTH CAMPAIGN

Jeff Collins, who manages free and reduced-cost insurance coverage for MVP, said no single strategy is enough — many strategies are needed to reach many people. So MVP adapts across the various communities it serves in New York and Vermont, and enlists the effort of trusted voices and institutions within those communities.

“There’s a lot of barriers and there’s a lot of things we’re trying to do to bring those rates up,” he said. “Bringing the vaccine to the community is one way to try to improve some of the disparities we see.”

Both inner-city communities of color and heavily white rural areas lag behind suburban communities on vaccination. Both can be reached, Collins said.

“I think what we find often is when we can get out into the community and take a few minutes and explain to people that the vaccine is safe, that it’s effective, that it can improve the outcomes for you and your loved ones, we’re able to reduce some of those fears,” he said.

RACIAL DISPARITY

The 12307 ZIP code is not only the least-vaccinated ZIP code in the county, it’s the one most heavily populated by non-white residents.

The disparity in vaccination is seen across the state and nation: White and Asian residents are getting the shot at a higher rate than Black and Hispanic residents.

In Schenectady County, white people make up 79.7% of the population age 15 or older and have received 86.5% of the vaccine doses; Black people are 11.6% of the population and 5.3% of doses; Hispanic 6.3% and 4.2% of doses; Asian 4.9% and 6.8% of doses.

With the vaccine no longer being rationed and reserved due to short supply, the low vaccination rate for some demographic groups comes down to them being unwilling or unable to travel to a POD.

Schenectady County Public Health Services is trying to both close the physical distance and change minds.

Communicable disease specialist Vanessa Burton-Miller has been successful at overcoming this reluctance in communities of color, not just because she is a member of that community but through a personable, one-on-one approach.

“I just come across very friendly and I also explain to them my experience, and how long I had it — I got my first vaccine in December,” she said. “I have learned that once you come across as concerned, and just explaining your experience, they’ll come.”

Are the people she speaks with creating their own barriers? Or are they coming up against the barriers created by generations of, at best, inequality and indifference?

“Both,” Burton-Miller said. “Just fear, the past history. They don’t know how to let it go.”

VARIED REASONS

Neal Townsel had pressing reasons for getting vaccinated — diabetes and a past bout with cancer make him more vulnerable to COVID — and he wasn’t hesitant himself. 

But he understands why other Black people are.

“I just think people of color are just so skeptical,” he said. “We’re skeptical about a lot of things that have been happening in this country. This is one more thing that they put on their plate. Now, it’s their choice to put on their plate.”

Townsel chose not to put it on his plate, after looking at the likely benefits and potential side effects of vaccination.

“I hear people talking about ‘I’m not going to take this, they’re trying to poison you.’ I’m not that way. I tend to look on the brighter side of things.”

Past instances of racial mistreatment such as the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis were a product of an era that has passed, he said.

His neighbors in the 12306 ZIP code where he lives are vaccinated at a substantially higher rate than in the 12307 ZIP where he brought his son to be vaccinated Thursday.

But Townsel believes the vaccine trolley and other efforts like it will make a difference in narrowing that gap, even if it’s just a few dozen people at a time.

“It adds up,” he said. “Multiply that by 30 days.”

As Proffitt noted, some people are coming in now for the freedoms the vaccine offers. Neal Townsel said his son Holden was one of them, and is looking forward to getting pumped up without having to mask up.

“He loves the gym — he’s even getting dad in there every now and then.”

The staff had picked up on the fact that Holden Townsel did not like needles. When the moment came, they kept him engaged in conversation rather than focused on his shoulder and the syringe.

As the quick jab was delivered, he didn’t flinch, and the staff gave him a little round of applause.

One more of Schenectady County’s 155,739 residents was now vaccinated.

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