Crystal Vazquez, 22, is pregnant and would rather wait to learn more about the effects of the coronavirus vaccine before she gets her shot.
Her parents got vaccinated about a week ago and she’s waiting to see how they fare first.
“I just want to do my own research,” said Vazquez as she waited for her bus in Newark along Broad Street. “Everyone’s body is different,” she later added.
Jose Fajardo, a painter who works in Newark, was worried about the shot’s side effects and the rare cases of blood clots he’s read about online.
He looked on as his two coworkers got their shot at a walk-up site under a tent in Ivy Hill Park, across the street from where they worked. He’d consider changing his mind on the vaccine once he assessed how his colleagues responded to the shot.
“If he’s fine with it, then I’ll probably get it too,” said Fajardo, 22, as he nodded towards his coworker in the observation section.
A new study from Zencity and the Harvard Kennedy School found many Newarkers are likely to have the same sentiments as Fajardo and Vazquez. About a third, or 30%, of 492 surveyed Newarkers said they don’t intend to get the vaccine right now.
But they are open to getting inoculated eventually. And that’s the group Newark officials should try their hardest to reach, experts say.
“There’s an opening and interest among communities of color and getting vaccinated,” said Zencity Strategic Partnerships Vice President Michael Simon. “But there’s more skepticism, more hesitancy more … ‘I want to see friends and family around me get vaccinated. I want to have a little more time’ and some concern about the short-term health effects.”
Thirty-one percent of respondents said they would get vaccinated as soon as possible, and 21% said they will get one after a few or many people they know have gotten their shot.
Just 17% of surveyed Newarkers said they will never get the vaccine, which is 11% lower nationally across other cities. So, complete vaccine resistance — or anti-vaxxers — plays less of a role in getting the city protected against the coronavirus.
It’s the hesitators.
Zencity’s researchers studied vaccine hesitancy across 19 cities and the data is now being used by mayors like Ras Baraka to boost vaccination rates in Newark. It comes at a time when Gov. Phil Murphy aims to have 70% of New Jersey adults vaccinated by July, yet inoculations remain low among Black, Latino and Asian communities.
Newark was hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. There have been 36,810 cases since the start of the pandemic and 988 deaths, according to county data.
In Newark — a majority Black and Latino city — the mayor said last week about 45% of adults have had at least one shot. State data this week said 28% of Newarkers among all ages were fully vaccinated.
Baraka’s goal is to have close to 70% fully vaccinated by the end of the summer.
“I think we’ve moved away from complete hesitation to more apathy and lack of access,” Baraka said last week at the pop-up vaccination site in Ivy Hill Park. “And that means, like listen, if I’m already hesitant, I’m not going to catch the bus across town and get a vaccine that I’m really hesitant about.”
What will help residents get over this hesitancy then?
The study found that 81% of Newark respondents wanted to see friends or family get inoculated and not have major side effects first. They would also trust their personal doctor, family members and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than religious leaders to provide reliable information about a COVID-19 vaccine, it said.
The leading contributors to vaccine hesitancy in Newark were concerns about side effects (68%) and its effectiveness (68%). A large percentage (60%) said they had distrust in the health care system, while 60% of respondents said registration or administration issues were also a factor.
That distrust comes from real inequities in the health care system. In New Jersey, Black women are seven times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women.
Celebrities do play some role in sentiment around the vaccine. Researchers observed public posts on social media from Newark residents and found that positive online sentiment about the vaccine was driven in part by mentions of Queen Latifah getting her shot.
The study was conducted around the end of March before incentive programs started becoming more prevalent. It’s unclear if the study researched whether incentives would convince more Black and Latino residents to get a shot.
Still, it’s not an idea that Baraka has supported.
“I just don’t want people to believe that we’re trying to coax them to take the vaccine,” said the mayor. “I just want them to understand it’s the right thing to do.”
City officials have been partnering with health groups like North Jersey Community Research Initiative to set up pop-up vaccination sites in neighborhoods. The group’s director of nursing, Anny Pastor, said NJCRI also set up a pop-up vaccination site at Newark Penn Station from 6 to 11 p.m. last month.
“This is the way to go,” Pastor told NJ Advance Media. “It’s also about engagement. You know, people have questions. People have doubts.”
A large portion of Newark respondents, 78%, said they’d be more likely to get vaccinated if it was convenient to get a shot. That was the case for Patt Porterfield, a Newark senior who got her Moderna shot in Ivy Hill Park. She’ll have to go downtown to get her second one at the city’s health department.
She learned about the Ivy Hill walk-up site about a week prior through an email from the Newark People’s Assembly. It’s an office in city hall that listens to residents and has hosted many meetings on resources related to housing and the pandemic in the past year.
“I didn’t have any (health) concerns,” said Porterfield, who lives nearby the park. “My concern was the convenience.”
Baraka has been pushing for bringing shots directly to residents. He supported the county’s decision to close three of five county-run vaccination sites, including one of two in Newark.
The city’s method of setting up pop-up sites in neighborhoods is the way Baraka wants to go. But it can be a slow process: about 20 people on average are vaccinated at the city’s weekly Educate the Block events, which are held between 5 and 7 p.m.
Patricia May, 67, doesn’t have a car and works as a home health aide. She was waiting on her bus at Broad and Market streets last week and said the city provided a van to take her to her appointment at Essex County College.
“The difficult part was trying to get the appointment over the phone,” said May, who tried for two weeks to speak to an operator over the phone and was deterred by the long queue. Her patient’s son eventually helped her book an appointment online instead.
United Way of Greater Newark also partnered with Uber to provide 10,000 free rides to local vaccination sites for Newark residents. Newarkers can use the code 10MVUWNewark in their Uber app to use it.
But for some Newark residents, it isn’t about access. Some just never plan to get vaccinated.
Robert Jones, 30, said he doesn’t plan to because of his Muslim beliefs. Some Muslims do not take vaccines because they are commonly made with animal derivatives from pork, but Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca say their inoculations do not use those products.
His grandmother died from COVID-19, but he still views the coronavirus vaccine rollout as a large experiment to see how it will affect the larger population. The Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were previously cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use, a less rigorous approval process. (Pfizer earlier this month requested full FDA approval.)
“I”m not messing with that,” said Jones as he waited for his bus on Broad and Market, adding that he still gets tested if he has symptoms. “I believe it’s like a test.”
The study, which was supported in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, showed there is a slew of other factors officials should consider to up vaccination rates. For example, 79% percent of Newarkers surveyed for the Zencity study also said they’d be more likely to get a vaccine if one was needed for work, school, or travel.
“I think government has to do a lot of things to get this right,” said Simon, an official with Zencity. “And as you can see, one of the challenges is there are a lot of different angles. There’s not one angle for any one group.”
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Rebecca Panico may be reached at [email protected].