As Infections Climb Among The Unvaccinated, OLA Scrambles For Ways To Reach Those Falling Through Cracks

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Erika Padilla, left, and Wally Ramirez of OLA of Eastern Long Island, helped organize a vaccination POD with Northwell Health at the Springs Food Pantry earlier this year in an effort to reach unvaccinated individuals in the Latino immigrant community.

With gaps in vaccination coverage driving a new increase in COVID-19 cases statewide — and the highest positivity rates in Suffolk County since early spring — advocates for minority communities say that they are still seeing significant numbers of unvaccinated individuals, especially in the large Latino immigrant population.

The Latino advocacy organization OLA of Eastern Long Island announced this week that it has been awarded a $100,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help expand vaccinations in underserved and hard to reach minority communities as the region continues to try to expand the ranks of the vaccinated.

State figures officially say that the East End has hit vaccination levels of more than 80 percent. But many suspect that those numbers have been skewed by the large number of second-home owners who have been essentially permanent residents here since the pandemic started and got their shots here even though they are not counted in the census figures used to estimate population. Some hamlets — primarily those with small year-round populations but many large, wealthy second home enclaves like Bridgehampton, Sagaponack and Wainscott — are shown on the state data as having more than 99 percent vaccination rates.

Medical professionals say that from what they’ve seen in the vaccination efforts, they do believe the region is at the vanguard of embracing the vaccines, but groups like OLA say that the high figures may cover up a lag in the large Latino community.

At places like the Springs Food Pantry, the volunteers who interact with the many Latino families say that they are still encountering un-vaccinated individuals.

“We are still hearing it,” said Holly Wheaton, director of the Wednesday pantry. “Many of them are afraid to go back to work, or can’t go back to work, even with all these jobs out there, its getting to be a crisis. Usually, we would have about 30 families in Springs coming to us this time of year.”

Instead it was 168 families last week — about 80 percent of them out-of-work Latinos, largely domestic workers, who get no government assistance.

In the spring, the pantry and OLA coordinated a vaccination drive with Northwell Health to administer shots at the pantry facility at the Springs Presbyterian Church during the Wednesday pick-up.

“We were asking people if they were vaccinated and they would say no, they didn’t know how to go about making an appointment and we knew it had to be addressed,” Ms. Wheaton said.

At the fist clinic, 52 people got their fist dose of Pfizer vaccine and all came back three weeks later for the second dose.

The pantry and OLA are making plans for a second such vaccination POD at the pantry next week to, hopefully, capture more people who have slipped through the cracks.

“If we can get one person vaccinated, that’s one more,” Ms. Wheaton said. “Every person we can vaccinate is a plus.”

Working with the Stony Brook, Northwell and SunRiver Health medical care networks, OLA helped organize a number of similar pop-up clinics that specifically targeted populations of Black and Latino residents, who have been seen since early on the pandemic as among the most vulnerable to contracting the disease, often the most threatened by its health effects and have proven the most challenging to get vaccinated.

While the region’s white and English-speaking residents flocked to mass vaccination sites as far away as Manhattan as fast as they could book appointments online, many Latino residents face hurdles of poor information distribution, transportation difficulties, the state’s reliance on online appointment systems and the inability to get away from work when vaccination appointments were available.

“It’s not the Latino community saying ‘We don’t want it’, it’s access and misinformation, or lack of good information in Spanish,” said Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA. “It was clear all the way back in February that there was a lack of access to the vaccine for many in the minority communities and that we needed to find ways to get people signed up and get them to the shots — even doing the actual transportation in some cases.”

Charlie Marder, owner of Marder’s nursery and landscaping company, has more than 200 employees, nearly 80 percent of them Latino, and in the spring he and his management staff came to the realization that most of them were not getting vaccinated simply because of the logistical hurdles.

“A lot of our people commute from points west — they come in very early, and they return home late, and for them to break up the routine with getting vaccinated would be income loss, or the process of going online to make appointments was not an option, so we simplified the whole process and did it here and let them do it during their workday,” Mr. Marder said. “We reached out to [OLA] and we worked with them to set up a barn on the property and a protocol and we told all our employees and their families. We did over a hundred in one day.”

On Tuesday, the state announced that it will close the mass vaccination site at the Stony Brook Southampton college campus, after more than four months of operations during which more than 54,000 vaccine shots were administered — upwards of 25,000 people.

Infection rates are rising statewide and in Suffolk County, however. On Monday, Suffolk County reported 88 new cases, the most it had seen in a 24-hour period since early May and higher than any of the daily counts from last summer — though still far below the 1,500-plus cases the county recorded during the post-holiday surge in January.

Stony Brook Southampton Hospital reported having just one patient admitted with COVID-19 symptoms on Monday.

More pharmacies and now some doctors offices are offering vaccines, but Ms. Perez said that continuing to organize targeted vaccination clinics in places that make it both easier and more comfortable for those who are unsure or untrusting of institutional centers will be more important than ever going forward.

“We want to go to Montauk next,” she said. “And we’re talking to homeless groups about how to reach those segments of the population.”

The effort to spread smart healthcare practice will extend beyond COVID-19, too, the OLA director said. The group is working on ways to create information campaigns that will connect the COVID-19 vaccine information and then flu vaccines.

“We have to strengthen the access points so that everyone has access to basic good health and factual information about it,” Ms. Perez said. “We have to look at these pockets that are not being reached by the traditional methods and zero in on the barriers that still exist and how we can bring them down.”

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