A Passport To Normalcy

County eyes seniors, underserved communities for vaccines

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was hailed as a “game changer” by Nassau County Executive Laura Curran. (Courtesy of Johnson & Johnson)

• Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the opening of 10 mass vaccination sites, including one at SUNY Old Westbury. They opened on Friday, March 19. Eligible New Yorkers will be able to schedule appointments by utilizing New York’s ‘Am I Eligible’ website or by calling the state’s COVID-19 Vaccination Hotline at 1-833-NYS-4-VAX (1-833-697-4829).

• Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the Nassau Coliseum was being readied as a county-run site, with an expected opening on March 23. She said more information will be forthcoming. Visit the county’s COVID-19 website to get the latest information on testing and vaccinations.

• Curran also unveiled, on March 18, a dedicated vaccine hotline just for county seniors: 516-227-9590.

• Veterans can get their vaccine at Nassau University Medical Center. Make an appointment through the Nassau County Veterans Service Agency at 516-572-6565.


The gross mismatch between supply and demand for the COVID-19 vaccine has led to widespread dissatisfaction and frustration with the rollout.

Northwell Health’s first Johnson & Johnson vaccine was delivered to a patient at South Shore University Hospital in Bay Shore. Patient Susan Maxwell-Trumble of West Babylon recives the shot from Jeanine Mucci, RN. (Courtesy of Northwell Health)

Desperate Nassau County residents, unable to secure local appointments, have ventured as far as Plattsburgh, on the Canadian border, for a shot. Many have also had to travel to the city, where Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid pharmacies are authorized to vaccinate those 60 and over.

State-run sites at the Javits Center and Aqueduct Racetrack have also served many Nassau residents, leading NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio to complain about “out-of-towners.”

But help is on the way.

President Biden announced March 2 that the United States will have enough vaccines for every adult by the end of May.

On March 19, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said what he called a “vaccine supercharge” was underway with New York receiving an influx of COVID vaccines from the federal government “along with a massive expansion of federally-funded vaccine sites that will utilize New York’s existing Community Health Centers.”

The press release continued, “Schumer explained, in total and on-average, New York will receive 1.65 million vaccines a week into April. This marks a 33 percent increase from right now and 3.5 times the number since President Biden took office.”

A spokesperson for Curran told Anton Media Group that it’s not yet known how this surge will benefit the county’s Department of Health, which helps distribute vaccines.

The introduction of the FDA-approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine was hailed by Curran and Nassau County Health Commissioner Dr. Larry Eisenstein. The county received its first doses of the new vaccine on March 4.

“The news about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a game changer,” Curran affirmed. “I’m really looking forward to getting [it] and spreading it as far and wide as we can.”

She added, “I am very optimistic about this vaccine. One and done. One dose. Regular refrigeration. Easier for pharmacies and doctors offices. And you don’t have to worry about that second appointment. It’s a beautiful thing. I know there are concerns about its [66 percent reported] efficacy, but it’s effective against hospitalizations and death. That to me is very important. When I’m eligible, I’ll be happy to get that vaccine.”

Added Eisenstein, “What the county executive said is the message. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine in clinical trials was 100 percent effective against death, and part of the study was done in South Africa, where the variant is.”

On March 17, standing before the “Yes We Can” Community Center in New Cassel—one of two county-run vaccination sites—Curran said, “We heard frustration loud and clear from seniors and from family members of seniors who don’t have access to technology and don’t have time to sit and refresh the browser all the time and are having a very hard time making an appointment for a vaccine. As we say, our goal is to let everyone have a shot at getting a shot, especially our vulnerable [populations] and seniors.”

She added, “Starting March 18, we’ll have a dedicated COVID-19 vaccine hotline just for seniors. It will operate 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and will assist seniors in making appointments.”

The hotline number is 516-227-9590.

Pop-Ups Everywhere

Curran and Eisenstein were at Elmont High School on Feb. 27 at a pop-up vaccination site that, via Northwell Health, administered about 1,050 vaccines to eligible residents and Sewanhaka School District staff.

Curran thanked Senators Todd Kaminsky and Anna Kaplan, Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages and Nassau County Legislator Carrié Solages for ensuring that constituents in the area got the chance to get the shots. There was extensive outreach done, said Kaminsky, who shares the district with Kaplan.

This New York State website updates the eligibility criteria for vaccines. (Screenshot)

Once he found out from Curran about the event, the senator “reached out to the people in the community because they would know who is most vulnerable and needs help, who may not have a computer or may not speak the language, who may not get around that easy. And we used their guidance to help fill these spots today. Of course, it’s very difficult and frustrating, and other people may hear about this and it’s very hard when there is a small amount. But filling these 1,000 [spots] was a priority.”

He added, “We’ll call a pastor in a church. We’ll call someone who leads a community center. We’ll call someone who works with seniors and say, ‘We need people who can’t get there on their own’ and they’ll say, ‘Here’s seven people’ and then we’ll call them. It’s very rare to make that call and have people not want to get a vaccine.”

“These pop-up sites have two goals: We want to assure access to the vaccines for all of our community. And we’re going to be talking in the following days about areas where we’ll do these initiatives,” Curran said. “The second goal is to boost confidence in the vaccine. And to combat hesitancy. While we’re waiting for the supply to ramp up, we’re working with faith leaders and community leaders and elected officials. We’re working with educators. People who are trusted in the community to talk about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, which is important. Another aim to reduce racial disparities is to reach everyone who is eligible. So that everyone has an equal shot to get the shot.”

As part of this effort, the county created a Nassau County Equity Outreach Team and started the “We Can Do It Nassau Campaign” to build confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine. It will focus on increasing access to the vaccine in communities of color, as well as combating hesitancy that exist among residents.

Eisenstein noted that one resident declined to accept the Moderna vaccine because it was “only” 94 percent effective, versus the Pfizer’s reported 95 percent.

“The answer is, get whatever vaccine you can get,” the commissioner said. “They save your life—period. That really is the whole story in a nutshell.”

Northwell Health Emergency Department Director Glenn Schaefering of Seaford, left, holds the vaccines and is accompanied by Northwell Health Community Relations Regional Director Matthew DePace of East Northport at the Elmont High School vaccination pop-up site. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

Asked about the supply problem, Eisenstein replied, “We knew from the very beginning that we were going to be dealing with supply and demand issues. It was published that there wasn’t going to be enough for everybody. That’s why prioritization groups were named.”

Eisenstein said he understood the frustration, but counseled patience.

“It doesn’t feel it, but it’s still very early—the vaccines are new. They’ve only been out about seven or eight weeks,” he observed. “The third product is coming. The actual larger volume of vaccines are about to come. I’m going to stay positive. I think we’re going to have a relatively normal summer based on the fact that we can vaccinate the overwhelming majority of the community.”

The commissioner added that county sites at the Yes We Can Community Center and Nassau Community College are operating seven days a week, while Northwell Health and other hospitals and pharmacies are also getting as many shots into arms as possible.


I’m going to stay positive. I think we’re going to have a relatively normal summer based on the fact that we can vaccinate the overwhelming majority of the community.

Dr. Larry Eisenstein


Of the vaccines, Eisenstein, an infectious disease expert, said, “By day 14 or 15 there is some protection. The maximum protection is not until two weeks after the second shot. But it does build, and every day we get closer to where we want to be.”

Curran said that “Nassau County is leading the state among major counties in the percentage of residents who’ve been vaccinated. And we don’t want to leave any population behind.”

She added, “I know it’s frustrating, but we’re making progress. It’s taking some time but we’re getting there. And we’re also getting more and more doses from the state each week. I’ve also been advocating for the vulnerable population of seniors to have access to vaccines, so as of yesterday our Department of Health was not allowed by the state to administer the vaccine to anyone over 65, unless they had a co-morbidity.”

But the day before, in a statement, Curran said that Governor Andrew Cuomo had agreed to allow the county to begin administering vaccines to the 65-plus group starting the week of March 1.

“I was very concerned because we know that seniors are very vulnerable to serious illness and unfortunately, death, to this virus, more than the rest of the population,” Curran said. “So I am glad to we can reach out to the seniors. We’ll start making those appointments when we get our new allotments next week.”

On March 1, Curran announced that the county’s weekly vaccine allotment was 7,200, a 35 percent increase from the previous week’s allotment of 5,300.

The county has seen a decline in new positivity rates and hospitalizations, returning to the state of affairs before the holidays.

“However, we are hearing of more contagious variants, so we are asking everyone to continue to wear masks and social distance,” Curran warned.

She concluded, “Our record is 100 percent. Every dose that we get in we’ve gotten into someone’s arm. We’re not wasting one dose. They’re far too precious.”

Inside The Pop-Up

A line of people stood waiting to enter the gymnasium at Elmont High School, where about 1,050 needles filled with vaccine had been delivered.

Sheryl Middleton, RN, who has worked for Northwell Health for 16 years, was asked about the operation.

“I think it’s running smoothly. The wifi goes in and out sometimes, but for the most part, we enjoy it,” she told Anton Media Group.

Middleton was certain that without her help, her octogenarian parents would have had a hard time getting a vaccine appointment.


Our record is 100 percent. Every dose that we get in we’ve gotten into someone’s arm. We’re not wasting one dose. They’re far too precious.

Laura Curran


“You have a 90-year-old navigating online, and by the time she gets her typing in, the appointment that she wants is gone,” she noted. “But a lot of people who’ve come in so far have told us that there was a telephone number they were calling, and that helped them. The people on the phone were very patient.”

“Why are so many medical people hesitant to take the vaccine and even expressed skepticism about it? Why do you think that is?” she was asked.

“Because we’ve seen so much,” she replied. “We’ve seen people die. You work in the hospital and all of a sudden you get the virus and you’re scared. We’re human.”

A reporter related what Northwell CEO Michael Dowling had said at a press conference regarding vaccines: “Better to have a pain in the arm than to die of COVID.”

Annalisa Melendez, left, gets ready for her vaccination shot from Sheryl Middleton, RN, at the vaccination pop-up site in Elmont on Feb. 27. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

“Absolutely. I’d rather be sick one day than 14 days,” Middleton said, and revealed that she’s vaccinated more than 500 people.

“I’ve seen more anxiety than anything else,” she observed. “Someone was just so nervous it was overwhelming for them at the time. You’ve got to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. You’ve got family. You’ve got parents. People are scared. This is new for all of us.”

Middleton gave a shot to Annalisa Melendez of Massapequa, a Spanish teacher at Sewanhaka High School.

The nurse asked a series of questions, such if Melendez had allergies, if she had recently had an injection or blood transfusion, or was pregnant or nursing.

“Just relax, we’re halfway there,” Middleton assured her.
,
When Melendez said, “I’m a righty,” Middleton told her, “We’ll do your left arm.”

The nurse ticked off the possible side effects: “Muscle aches, soreness. Some people get headaches. Everybody’s different. If you do get pain you can put some cold compresses on your arm and take some Tylenol.”


We’ve seen people die. You work in the hospital and all of a sudden you get the virus and you’re scared. We’re human.

Sheryl Middleton, RN


Melendez briefly grimaced when the needle penetrated her skin, and laughed and told Middleton, “I’m just a baby.”

“That’s OK, I’m a baby too,” Middleton rejoined. “I can give ’em but I can’t take ’em.”

“You’re OK, you did great,” Middleton reassured her.

“Were you scared?” Melendez was asked.

“Yes. I was scared. I’m not going to lie,” she replied.

“I’m doing it so I can see my grandparents,” she added. “I was skeptical at first. But I’m doing it so I can be protected in school and protect my students and my family.”

Holocaust Survivors Aren’t Forgotten

The day after the Elmont pop-up, Northwell Health medical personnel were back in action at the Marion & Aaron Jewish Community Center in Lawrence, where 150 seniors received vaccinations, about 60 of them Holocaust survivors.

Jakub (Jack) Rybsztajn of Woodmere, center, 96, is helped by Gural Jewish Community Center Associate Executive Director Cathy Byrne and Senator Todd Kaminsky on Feb. 28. Northwell Health held a pop-up clinic at the Lawrence center to vaccinate seniors and about 60 Holocaust survivors. Jack and his wife Bronia (Bonnie), both survivors, got their vaccines days ahead of their 75th wedding anniversary. The elderly have had a hard time navigating the vaccination appointment websites. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

The United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation New York, according to a press release, “has been actively engaged and connected with Holocaust survivors and the elderly throughout the pandemic, helping these at-risk populations have the opportunity to be vaccinated in their neighborhoods where they are most comfortable. Gural JCC and UJA worked with community partners including Self Help, additional Long Island JCCs, and local synagogues to identify survivors and the most vulnerable seniors to receive vaccinations.”

Aaron Rosenfeld, CEO of the JCC, talked about difficulties seniors faced in securing the valuable appointments.

“We registered them into the system. They just don’t have the capacity to do that,” he told reporters.

The population of Holocaust survivors on Long Island is 1,500, according to Rosenfeld, and Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA, said that in total, there were about 35,000 survivors in the metropolitan area.

Senator Todd Kaminsky (D–Long Beach), said, “The UJA’s top request in the state budget every year is money for their Holocaust Survivor Program. It’s something we fund every year.”

“This is a community that is deserving of our support,” Goldstein observed. “We’ve found that as they’ve been shut-in during this period, their resurrected memories of being shut in before and it brings trauma. To do this thing now and give them their lives back is a huge thing.”

Senior centers had to curtail in-person activities during the pandemic. This caused distress to their patrons, who depended on the socializing as well as meals and other services.


We’ve found that as they’ve been shut-in during this period, their resurrected memories of being shut in before and it brings trauma. To do this thing now and give them their lives back is a huge thing.

—UJA Federation President Eric Goldstein


“At the senior centers you had to provide services in an entirely new way,” Goldstein said. “Having to deliver meals. Having to do online programs. Again, many in the community aren’t sufficiently comfortable online. Bringing social workers into homes in a safe way became a much more complicated world since the pandemic started.”

He added, “But our non-profit partners like the Gural JCC have been doing an amazing job figuring out how to engage with the community, even remotely.”

Kaminsky stated, “The Gural JCC does a very meaningful celebration every Thanksgiving and I’ve gone to serve the past four years. And there wasn’t one [in 2019] and you’ve got to wonder where all the Holocaust surviors went. It certainly wasn’t the same Thanksgiving.”

“We do try to make it up by delivering Thanksgiving meals,” Rosenfeld said. “We do telephonic sessions with all of our clients because we don’t want them to feel isolated. We need them to feel part of the community.”

Volunteers from a local Jewish school gave Purim gift bags to everyone who completed their shots.

Rosenfeld said, “The reason why we’re trying to make it festive is because for many of them, this is the first time getting out of their homes. It’s really getting our seniors back. Isolation leads to depression and other medical issues. Our social workers are calling every day. We look forward to getting them back in the building.”

There was a flurry of media attention when Jakub (Jack) Rybsztajn, 96, and wife Bronia (Bonnie), 97, of Woodmere, arrived in separate town cars. Their last name has been Anglicized as Rybstein.

“I personally, on behalf of my wife and myself and my family, I’m thankful to God for keeping me [alive] until today,” Jack said after getting out of the car.

JCC Associate Executive Director Cathy Byrne asked if he would like to meet Eric Goldstein.

“Of course,” Jack replied, then wondered, “Where’s Eric?”


The reason why we’re trying to make it festive is because for many of them, this is the first time getting out of their homes. It’s really getting our seniors back. Isolation leads to depression and other medical issues.

—Gural JCC CEO Aaron Rosenfeld


“This is Eric,” Byrne told him, pointing to the tall man looming on the curb above them.

“You have to come down here,” Jack said, pointing to the ground and drawing laughter. “You’re too high to stand up there.”

Jack took Goldstein’s wrist and bumped the younger man’s hand against his elbow.

“I’m originally from Poland. God wanted us to be around, so he saved us,” the survivor said. “I can’t believe that I endured so much pain and discomfort of living a normal life. God blessed us. He matched us up with my dear wife Bonnie. There was a family in Brussels, they were gentiles. And they invited the whole town of Brussels at the biggest center of Brussels, Belgium, and they invited everybody. And we didn’t have one relative [there], neither my wife nor I.”

“And here I am standing with your people,” he said, his voice breaking.

Kaminsky to Jack, patting him on the arm: “Let’s go get that vaccine.”

The nonogenarian slowly made his way to the ramp, with Byrne steadying him.

Later, after his shot, he held forth as several videographers filmed him talking about his horrible and yet hopeful life story.

 

Frank Rizzo
Frank Rizzo is a journalist at Anton Media Group. With decades of experience in the industry, he is exceptionally equipped to cover local politics, business and other topics that matter to readers.

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