Technology

How a small media company helps people get vaccinated

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More than 132 million people in the US have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and as of this week, all Americans over 16 are eligible.

But while the US has vaccinated more people than any other country in the world, vulnerable people still fall through the cracks. Those hardest hit include those who do not speak English, those who are not familiar with the Internet, and shift workers who do not have the time or computer access to book their own slots. In many places, community leaders, volunteers, and even news outlets have stepped in to help.

One of those groups is Epicenter-NYC, a media company founded during the pandemic to help neighbors navigate covid-19. The organization is based in the borough of Queens in Jackson Heights, which has been particularly hard hit by the virus, and publishes a newsletter on education, business and other local news.

S. Mitra Kalita, editor of Epicenter-NYC

But Epicenter-NYC has gone further and has actually booked more than 4,600 vaccine appointments for people in New York and beyond. People who want to be vaccinated can contact the organization via an admission form, hotline, text or email for help in setting up an appointment.

During the launch of the vaccine, the group also documented and shared what they learned about the process to a large audience of newsletter readers.

We spoke to Epicenter-NYC editor S. Mitra Kalita who was previously Senior Vice President at CNN Digital and is also the co-founder and CEO of URL Media, a network for news agencies dealing with color communities.

This interview has been compressed and edited for the sake of clarity.

Q: How did you start setting people up with vaccination appointments?

A: It started with two areas of reach. When I had to register my own parents for a vaccine and found the process quite confusing, I immediately wondered how well elderly residents, their friends and neighbors are managing this process. I just started texting them.

The second was as a restaurant [from our small business spotlight program] Reached out his hand and said, “Do you know how to get vaccines for our restaurant workers?” Because I had navigated some of it for the elderly, I started helping the restaurant workers. There began to be a similar network effect. One of the workers in this restaurant has a friend who is a taxi driver. When I helped her, she asked if I could help her boyfriend. then the friend texted me with some of his friends; and it continued to spread that way.

Q: How is Epicenter-NYC currently filling gaps in vaccine distribution? How is your process and who are you helping?

“There’s a lot of matchmaking going on. We can search a list of around 7,500 to 8,000 people who said they needed help and find places nearby.”

S. Mitra Kalita

A: We have had between 200 and 250 people who volunteered. Outreach efforts range from creating flyers to translating and calling people to literally booking appointments.

I don’t care if you’re a Bangladeshi cab driver in Queens and your cousin is in New Jersey. We will help you both. A woman on the Upper East Side who is 102 years old, homebound and in need of a visit will definitely get the help of Epicenter.

What we are doing now is continuing on the path of connecting people with one another and with opportunities. There is a lot of matchmaking going on. We can search a list of around 7,500 to 8,000 people who said they needed help and find places nearby. We have become this wonderful marriage – a centralized operation that also includes decentralized solutions.

Q: We know that vaccination rates are lagging behind in many of the hardest hit communities. Why this? What problems and obstacles do people have?

A: Just before the final announcement of the Johnson & Johnson hiatus, I said, “We have come to a point where all remaining people are special.”

I think we skipped the vaccine hesitation without looking for vaccine access. We don’t see much hesitation, but we do see a lot of concern about some issues. Number one would be planning. We’re dealing with populations who have two, maybe three jobs, and when they say, “I have this window on Sunday from 3:00 p.m. to maybe 6:00 p.m. when my next shift starts,” they really mean that only window is.

Q: People were asked to prove who they are, where they work and where they live in order to qualify for a vaccine. This is especially true if the authorization was more restricted. How have you helped people overcome barriers to getting the documents they need?

A: New York State specifically stated that you can get a vaccine even if it is not documented. But this news doesn’t really reflect the reality on the ground.

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Steven Gregory