‘I’m beyond thrilled some inkling of normalcy may return to this gorgeous mosaic of a city by summer. But city and state officials are going to have to step up their game on how to best address vaccine hesitancy or otherwise, we may be setting ourselves up for problems down the road.’

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Mayor Bill de Blasio at the recent reopening of Coney Island.

Mayor Bill de Blasio expects New York City to “fully reopen” on July 1, following a year of isolating restrictions that were intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. “We are ready for stores to open, for businesses to open, offices, theaters, full strength,” de Blasio said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Thursday. 

More than half the city’s eligible population has received at least the first dose of the vaccine, according to data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. More than 36 percent of all eligible residents have been fully vaccinated. The mayor attributed the decision to open to the fact that New Yorkers are getting vaccinated.

“What we’re seeing is people have gotten vaccinated in extraordinary numbers. 6.3 million vaccinations in New York City to date,” said de Blasio. He pointed out how easy it is to get the shot. People can just walk in and get vaccinated at the American Museum of Natural History under the iconic big blue whale. “Go over and do it today, everyone!” the mayor mplored.

I’m beyond thrilled some inkling of normalcy may return to this gorgeous mosaic of a city by summer. But city and state officials are going to have to step up their game on how to best address vaccine hesitancy or otherwise, we may be setting ourselves up for problems down the road.

There are neighborhoods in New York City—such as Ocean Hill, Brownsville and Canarsie— where as few as 35 percent of eligible residents have received their first dose of the vaccine.

And while public health experts long expected that deep-rooted distrust might lead to significant coronavirus vaccine hesitancy among marginalized communities, there are also more than a few affluent communities where notable numbers of residents appear to be holding back on getting the shot.

Over the past few months, I’ve had conversations with at least three educated, worldly friends and acquaintances here in New York City who say they do not believe they’ll be getting the coronavirus vaccine because of safety concerns or an aversion to vaccines in general. These exchanges happened before federal officials paused use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on April 14 after a handful of recipients—out of 7 million—developed a rare blood-clotting disorder.

A random sampling from a New York circle of friends is hardly scientific, but judging from what I’m hearing from others as well, there could be a notable vein of vaccine hesitancy in some of the pricier, trendier and liberal stronghold neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Manhattan. 

As of April 25, 39 percent of eligible residents (over 18 years old) in the overpriced zip code where I live in Brooklyn—i.e., Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Red Hook—had not gotten their first dose, according to data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In what is arguably Manhattan’s priciest zip code, 10013—Hudson Square, Little Italy, Soho and part of Tribeca—at least 30 percent of eligible residents still have not gotten the first shot. There could be logistical excuses or hiccups for those numbers but the level of vaccine availability and accessibility from the city’s vaccine centers suggest otherwise. 

On April 15, the Javits Center, New York City’s busiest vaccine site thus far, had a surplus of 6,000 vaccine appointments available. “This is the most popular vaccination center in NYC. Until now appts have often gone in minutes. This is a deeply worrying development,” New York City Councilmember Mark Levine said on Twitter.

A brief search for appointments on April 29 at the city’s vaccinefinder.nyc website showed that 217 vaccination sites, including Javits Center, had first doses available. Yet, to date, just 50 percent of  New York City residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Across the city, demand for vaccines has plummeted.  As for me, I got my shots as soon as I was eligible. I also did my best to help other friends find and score appointments.

For what it’s worth, the second dose of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine did a little number on my body. Around 12 hours after getting the shot, I had a slight fever, chills and felt run down. But it went away in less than 24 hours. I was actually fascinated by the side effects. The reaction was a sign the vaccine was working by triggering the immune system to do precisely what it’s supposed to do, doctors say.

After getting that second shot, I also had an emotional rush of relief and gratitude knowing I was on my way to being fully-vaccinated against this monster plague that has smothered the life out of more than 3 million people worldwide. On the walk home from the vaccination site, I got a little mushy and shed a tear. I felt so fortunate. 

It’s really simple. There is an element of risk in almost all forms of medicine. And the miniscule risk for serious side effects caused by the coronavirus vaccine gets far outweighed by the death and despair the country might face if we can’t at least come close to achieving herd immunity— the point at which experts say coronavirus may no longer spread as easily through the general population and then hopefully, virus transmission fades out.

Hesitancy among the well-to-do is especially frustrating against the backdrop of the surge in COVID-19 cases in places such as India, where bodies are being burned in temporary mass cremation facilities set up in parking lots, people are suffocating because of a lack of oxygen and hospitals are turning individuals away. Just 1.5 percent of India’s population is fully vaccinated. 

On the other hand, in Israel, where nearly 60 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, there were zero deaths from COVID-19 on April 23—the first time in 10 months. Israel’s daily new cases are down to their lowest level in nearly one year. Among those 60 and over, 90 percent are fully vaccinated. Proof of being vaccinated is required to eat indoors at a restaurant, go to a bar or the gym.

So far, only around 40 percent of the population in the United States has received the first dose of the vaccine and experts say there are signs we’ve reached a tipping point —where the supply of the vaccine is outpacing demand. Mass vaccination sites in some states are reportedly closing because of decreased demand for the shots. That’s deeply troubling.

Among Americans who say they won’t get the vaccine, the vast majority are Republicans. A recent Monmouth University poll said 43 percent of Republicans nationwide plan to avoid the vaccine compared to just 5 percent of Democrats. 

It’s almost easy to write off fringe Trump supporters who have lapped up so much of the wackadoodle stew of conspiratorial thinking and reactionary politics that they would put themselves and the entire world at greater risk for a mutation-fueled catastrophe.

And the deeply-rooted distrust some members of marginalized communities may hold about the vaccine is understandable, considering the stubborn stains of discrimination and legacy of healthcare inequity coupled with hideous historical moments such like the 1932 Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis. 

But it’s pretty hard to process the thinking of enlightened left-leaning New Yorkers who for all intents and purposes, respect facts and trust science yet turn out to be essentially indifferent to the risk they face, and the selfish role they could play, in prolonging the COVID-19 plague by not getting vaccinated. The more Americans who avoid getting the shor, the greater the chances for the birth and spread of even more deadly mutations that could feasibly outsmart vaccines. 

Experts say trusted messaging and outreach to individuals and communities who are hesitant or have misgivings about the vaccine is crucial. Enticements such as those imposed in Israel seem effective. If private businesses in New York City such as bars, restaurants and gyms begin asking for proof of vaccination, perhaps that will entice more people to get the shots.

But equally important are the conversations we have with each other. As I’ve learned, we can’t just assume all our city friends trust and follow modern science.

Alabama native Cody Lyon is a New York City writer and former reporter.

2 thoughts on “Opinion: The Mayor Says NYC Will Fully Reopen July 1. But What About Vaccine Hesitancy?

  1. Cody,
    Great piece. I agree that this is quite concerning. Thanks for devoting energy to giving some attention to this issue?

  2. I just can NOT believe that a New Yorker, which is supposed to be more “educated” because lives in the capital of the world, even think about getting the vaccine!
    Look at the facts people …ahhh and if that is not enough, get out of your bubble and look how many people are dying in India and my old country Colombia because they don’t have access to the vaccine….Seriously? …enough said..

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