Like many New Yorkers, Dilletta Pina, a 70-year-old retiree from Norwood, worries about the highly infectious COVID-19 Delta variant. To stay safe, Pina never leaves her house without a mask, diligently washes her hands, and practices social distancing. But, like some of her fellow Bronxites, there is one step she’s not yet ready to take, and that’s getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, compared to other boroughs, as reported, the Bronx continues to have the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated adults at 43 percent as of July 10, while Manhattan has the highest, at 64 percent.
While citywide infection, hospitalization, and death rates have all dropped significantly since COVID-19 vaccines became available, the Delta variant, a highly infectious mutation of the COVID-19 virus, has some health experts worried that another deadly spike in cases could occur, especially in Bronx communities with low vaccination rates, and among the vaccine-hesitant, like Pina.
Indeed, there have been focused efforts over the years to reduce the high asthma rates in the Bronx, as reported, and more than once, but those efforts probably garnered a lot less attention since asthma is not contagious, whereas COVID-19 is. The latter therefore has the potential to disproportionately overburden intensive care units in hospitals as it can affect the whole population.
Sandra Albrecht, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, says, while Pina’s arguments deserve consideration, they don’t change the fact that science and research have shown that people with underlying conditions such as diabetes and asthma have a much higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than those who do not have these conditions. Therefore, indirectly, these long-known health conditions are being addressed.
As previously reported by Norwood News, the Bronx was once the pandemic’s epicenter, often leading the City in infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19. In early March 2020, almost one percent of Bronxites had been hospitalized with the coronavirus.
The Bronx’s current low vaccination rates, coupled with widespread vaccine-hesitancy and the looming threat of the Delta variant, has Bronxites like Michelle Avila, chair of Bronx Community Board 7’s (CB7) health committee, fearing for the borough’s future, as reported.
“I am very concerned,” Avila told the Norwood News in an email. “While vaccination is an individual’s choice, we are in this public health crisis together. So long as these factors remain, our communities remain vulnerable to an outbreak. No one wants to go back to that situation. The only way we return to normal is to continue to increase vaccination rates and protect those that can’t be vaccinated at this time.”
Jason Autar, chief operating officer at Bronx Rising Initiative, an organization dedicated to addressing COVID-19 related health care disparities in the Bronx, also believes that increasing vaccination rates is critical to avoiding another wave of cases. To get more people vaccinated, his organization has created pop-up vaccination sites and has even gone door-to-door, throughout the pandemic, to help seniors and essential workers register for vaccine appointments. However, for Autar, getting people vaccinated is a short-term win. He said what really matters is building and earning the communities trust beyond the pandemic.
“You really have to meet people where they are, and it’s not a one-time thing,” he said. “It’s showing up constantly, and demonstrating that we are part of the community, and we look like the community, and we speak the languages. It’s so important not to paint entire swaths of a community with broad strokes.”
Additionally, Autar hopes that as people see their family members, friends, and neighbors being vaccinated, without experiencing adverse reactions, that proof will trickle down and motivate the vaccine-hesitant to get vaccinated. “You have to take a multifaceted approach with this,” Autar said. “It can’t be one size fits all.”
Autar is also concerned that now that the City has reopened, Bronxites will let their guard down and may not take the usual safety measures like hand-washing and mask-wearing as seriously as they did during the height of the pandemic. He said this is also more worrisome in a borough that has the lowest vaccination rate.