By Barrett Seaman–
Piece by piece, the bandages are starting to come off. This week, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people can go maskless in public (except in crowds). That’s about a third of adults in Westchester. Governor Cuomo said that offices can increase their capacity from 50 to 75 percent; casinos can go from 25 to 50 percent, and gyms and fitness centers can go from 33 to 50 percent. In mid-May, outdoor stadium capacity limits will rise to 33 percent. By Memorial Day, all curfews will be off for bars and restaurants.
While the brass ring of herd immunity may be in sight, however, it is not in hand. Vaccine supplies have been plentiful—enough so that the federal government can afford to send 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to India, which appears to have been swallowed whole by mutating forms of the virus. What two months ago was a paucity of supply and an almost desperate demand at home has now at least reached equilibrium—and maybe something more worrisome.
At his Monday briefing, County Executive George Latimer expressed concern at the fall-off in demand for vaccines. Scattered reports of doses going un-used at pharmacies, public notices that appointments at sites were available on short notice and evidence of people foregoing their second shots of Pfizer or Moderna all suggest a decline in the communal sense of urgency to finish the task at hand, even as it promises a return to something akin to normal life.
Governments at all levels and civic groups engaged in the vaccination effort are making adjustments. Public service ads featuring athletes and celebrities (e.g. the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes) endorsing vaccination appear during evening news shows. In New York State, Governor Cuomo announced that all 16 mega-sites are accepting walk-ins; while appointments are still available, they are no longer required. Latimer announced that the County Health Clinic, 134 Court Street in White Plains, will be offering Moderna vaccines on Friday, April 30, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. to anyone who walks in the door, without an appointment. United Way of Westchester and Putnam is offering free Lyft rides to vaccine appointments for those not receiving full Medicaid benefits, Those eligible can book one at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perhaps the most promising inroads are being made at the grass roots level. Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner’s band of COVID Angels, whose initial purpose was helping primarily older folks get appointments during winter scarcity, are now re-organizing. “In the beginning, we were getting people coming to us,” said Jennifer Lynch, an Angel who is otherwise a nurse at Columbia-Presbyterian. “Now we are seeking out people.”
In this second phase, the Angels are subdividing into two groups. One team, headed up by Sleepy Hollow residents Kenny Herzog and Krista Madsen, who is also Feiner’s administrative assistant, operates under the banner of #VaxUpWestchester. Their goal is to identify who and where the yet unvaccinated are, and why, and to create messaging that persuades them to get inoculated.
The second team, headed by Lynch and Rachel Blitzer Brodhead, an attorney living in Irvington, are out in the field, meeting the reluctant and the indifferent where they are and then closing the deal by getting them appointments or otherwise seeing to it that they get to a vaccination site.
The first team is gathering data to help them target specific markets, to craft messaging, especially in Spanish, that hits the right note with their appeals. They are trying to get the word out in whatever ways seems effective–through area clergy, social clubs, community and senior centers. Kenny Herzog pores over county dashboard data to identify the pockets of high COVID infection rates, since those are the ones obviously in need of vaccine.
The second team is out doing the field work, meeting the target audience where they live—or work, or shop. Blitzer Brodhead has been hanging out outside Tarrytown’s C-Town food market this week with a sign (in Spanish and English) promoting vaccine appointment availabilities and her laptop so that she can take down personal information from those who respond to her invitation. In a few hours this Tuesday, she signed up a dozen or so. She’s on the lookout for similar areas—popular lunch spots, maybe Home Depot.
One team member latched onto the Dobbs Ferry food pantry, where they could slip Spanish language flyers into the food parcels being handed out. Another team member identified a car wash in Elmsford as a place where Latinos work and congregate—and thus a good place to distribute flyers.
The Angels started out covering technically challenged seniors in Greenburgh but in this second phase find themselves spreading out across Westchester, chasing a virus that knows no boundaries. What they are learning about the different layers of vaccine resistance as they go is invaluable information not only for their own work but for what other volunteers and agencies and governments can do to finish the job.