Throughout the vaccine rollout, the group also documented and shared what they learned about the process with a large audience of newsletter readers.
We spoke with S. Mitra Kalita, publisher of Epicenter-NYC, who was previously senior vice president of CNN Digital and is also the co-founder and CEO of Average url, a media network covering communities of color.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: How did you get started with scheduling vaccine appointments?
A: It started with two areas of awareness. First, when I had to register my own parents for a vaccine and found the process quite confusing, I immediately wondered how well the elderly residents, their friends and neighbors were handling this process. I just started texting them.
The second was when a restaurant [from our small business spotlight program] reached out and said, “Do you know how to get our restaurant workers vaccinated?” Because I had sailed some of this for the elderly, I started helping the catering workers. There started to be a similar network effect. One of the employees at this restaurant has a boyfriend who is a taxi driver; when i helped her she asked if i could help her boyfriend; then the boyfriend texted me with some of his friends; and it continued to spread that way.
Q: How is Epicenter-NYC currently filling the vaccine distribution gap? What is your process like and who are you helping?
A: We had between 200 and 250 people reach out to volunteer. Outreach efforts range from putting up flyers, translating and calling people to making appointments.
I don’t care if you’re a Bangladeshi cab driver in Queens and your cousin is in New Jersey. We will help both of you. A 102-year-old Upper East Side woman who is housebound and in need of a visit is definitely going to get help from Epicenter.
What we do now is continue to connect people to each other and create opportunity. There is a lot of matchmaking going on. We can sort through a list of about 7,500 to 8,000 people who have said they need help, and then find places nearby. We have become this wonderful marriage – a centralized operation that also encompasses decentralized solutions.
Q: We know immunization rates are lagging in many communities that have been hit the hardest. Why is that? What are the problems and obstacles that people face?
A: Just before Johnson & Johnson last break announcementI said, “We’re at a point where everyone else is a special case.”
I think we have moved on to vaccine reluctance without addressing the issue of vaccine access. We don’t see a lot of hesitation, but we do see a lot of concern on some issues. The first would be planning. We are dealing with populations who work two, maybe three jobs, and when they say, “I have this window Sunday from 3 to 6 maybe, when my next shift starts”, they really want say this is the only window.
Q: People have been asked to prove who they are, where they work and where they live in order to qualify for a vaccine. This was especially true where eligibility was more limited. How did you help people overcome barriers to getting the documents they needed?
A: New York State has been explicit in saying that you can still get the vaccine even if you are undocumented. But this message does not really correspond to the reality on the ground.
For decades, New York has built and thrived a restaurant industry on the backs of undocumented workers. Getting a letter from an employer or showing a pay stub to prove employment isn’t always possible for undocumented workers: we’ve created a public resource for documentation, with a sample letter you can show your employer and have it signed.
Q: Are there other challenges?
A: Proof of residence in New York. The homeless population throughout the pandemic has not only exploded, but has been redefined. We hear people moving from one sofa to another or crashing with friends or with a cousin. We had someone showering in a gym, and the gym offered to write the letter on their behalf.
Inevitably the question I get is “Is this the role of a journalistic organization?” The essence of what we are describing is [a method] for these people to prove that they are human. In some ways, there is no greater purpose for our journalism.
Q: You recently wrote about the need to adjust vaccination schedules as Ramadan approaches because Muslim New Yorkers were concerned about getting vaccinated during the holidays. Do you think governments approach vaccine deployment with this level of granularity and consideration?
A: The question is, do governments see people? Do they see communities? We love living in New York because it’s a global city. There is an awareness of other cultures and other situations.
It is one thing to know that Ramadan exists. It’s another for you to say, “I need to accommodate this population because it’s the difference between life and death for my mother or my aunt.”
Our system allowed Epicenter to spot trends early on. Long before the Atlanta Massacre, our Chinese language team was telling me that senior Asian people were very scared and didn’t want to do without another person, for example. And they wanted to go somewhere where there would be a translation.
When you can get the government to provide a service not only from government to ruled, but from human to human with something in common, it is so much bigger.
Q: What are the lessons that can be learned beyond the pandemic?
A: Maybe never again will we have this opportunity to interact with the public like we do with vaccines now. How does this change the delivery of other services?
Some of our volunteers asked if we would like to do a summer tutoring program, as the children might be ill-equipped to start school in September. Do we need to share cover letters to apply for jobs or catalog the tips and tricks that many of us take for granted? How do you take this moment, learn and react accordingly?
I will most certainly continue Epicenter, as long as there are readers, community, and it’s sustainable.
This story is part of the Pandemic technology project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.