Natalie Chitwood, 40, came to a vaccination clinic at the Union Baptist Church because it was close by, and easy to fit into her schedule as a freelance photographer. (DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA)

By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

Lawanda Becker hadn’t been comfortable with the idea of getting a coronavirus vaccine.

She’d been made wary when distribution of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was temporarily paused, after a small number of women developed blood clots after taking it.

“I didn’t want to be a guinea pig,” Becker, 44, said.




Then, her mother died in April. Becker’s not sure if coronavirus was the cause, but she’d tested positive. She knew then it was time to get protected, to be a role model to her own children, she said.

Becker — attending a vaccine clinic at the Union Baptist Church May 12 — had heard some of the same rumors that make many people reluctant. She’d heard about people dying due to the shot (the CDC says it’s found no causal link between vaccines and deaths) or getting COVID-19 from the vaccine itself (the vaccines can cause short-term side effects, but contain no live virus).

She worried about the inconsistencies she’d heard about — “you could [still] get it with the vaccination,” she said. And that one’s true — a small percentage of those vaccinated may still get infected or sick, though medical professionals stress the vaccines are highly effective at preventing illness serious enough to cause hospitalization or death.

“I feel comfortable with Moderna, as my significant other also took it,” Becker said. He works in a hospital, she said, and getting vaccinated didn’t affect him. “So, I decided to take it.” 

According to the state’s vaccination dashboard, as of Wednesday, 54% of Montclair residents of any age were fully vaccinated. It showed 70% of those over 18 were fully vaccinated, and 94% of those ages 65 and up — who account for some of the people most vulnerable to coronavirus — were vaccinated. 

But vaccines aren’t reaching all groups equally. The state also reported 7% of those who’d been fully vaccinated in New Jersey were Black, even though Census data shows Black people account for about 15% of the state population. Hispanic and Latino people accounted for 13% of those vaccinated, but are nearly 21% of the state population.

The comparisons of figures aren’t apples to apples — Census response rates vary among groups, and about 17% of those vaccinated are recorded as “other” or “unknown.” But state officials say they worry about the gaps.

“If we get deeper, it’s young Hispanic men we need to pay attention to,” Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said during the state’s coronavirus briefing on May 12. “They’re three times more likely to die from COVID than their white counterparts, and African American/Black males and females are two times as likely.”

The Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence recently trained three community health workers to focus on vaccine outreach to Black and brown communities in Montclair.

Aminah Toller, one of the health workers, said hesitation often comes down to fear, or a lack of information.

“We were hosting various town hall sessions so people can get proper information and make an informed decision in the best interest for them,” Toler said. The events featured Black and brown professionals and community leaders, and discussions on vaccine equity, history and the science behind the vaccine. Mayor Sean Spiller hosted a similar event earlier this year.

Toler found more people would sign up once they got clearer information. In particular, she said, the MFEE workers encountered concerns among Hispanic residents — worried they’d have to pay for vaccines, that they’d need insurance, or that they’d have to share their immigration status (none of that is required for vaccination).

“We try to dispel all of those rumors to make sure our Hispanic brothers and sisters are well versed and understand this is free. No one is tracking you. This information doesn’t go any further than the Health Department,” Toler said. 

Ariel Augustus, 44, who lives in Montclair’s Fourth Ward, was hesitant at first because of the reports of side effects from vaccines — the most common are short bouts of flu-like aches. He also attended the May 12 clinic at Union Baptist Church.

“It took me like a month and a half to think about it,” Augustus said. 

After getting the vaccine, Augustus said he felt better, “especially because my mother is older.”

Essex County opened up five vaccination sites this year, with the closest to Montclair set up at the former Kmart building in West Orange. At first, supplies were low and appointments difficult to schedule; now, walk-ins are taken. Some of the sites have shut down for first doses, though the Kmart is still available.

“I think really the next part of the outreach that we’re trying to do is really meeting people where they are,” county Commissioner Brendan Gill said. “We want to have more community-based locations, more community-based partners, to make it easy, as accessible as possible for people to receive the vaccine.” 

Mobile vaccination units, like the one hosted in Union Baptist Church, have been set up in various communities.

“We have to be wherever there are people. We can’t expect them to always come wherever we are,” Dr. Renee Baskerville, a former Fourth Ward councilwoman and medical adviser to the MFEE’s community outreach program, said. “We have to notice that there’s a location or several locations that are not really serving certain populations and make sure we’re there.”

Access has been an issue for seniors as well — sometimes because of a lack of transportation, sometimes because of a lack of access to internet-connected devices to make appointments. 

With funding from the Montclair Center Business Improvement District and working with the mayor’s COVID-19 recovery task force, the nonprofit group Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place compiled a list of 728 seniors who had limited digital access, based on Census data. It sent out “snail mail” letters, offering help.

Through that “Gateway to Vaccination” campaign, the program was able to sign more than 100 seniors for vaccination, and arranged transportation for several through the free EZ Ride bus service for seniors and residents with disabilities.

Doreen Neil Harris, 69, who lives on Miller Street in the Fourth Ward and is originally from Jamaica, said she came to the Union Baptist event because it was close to home. She was planning on getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was offered as well as the Moderna vaccine.

“It was very convenient to this location because she said I could only get it at Livingston Mall, [and] I didn’t plan to drive that far,” Harris said. 

Upcoming MFEE vaccination events

• On Wednesday, June 2, at 5 p.m., the Moderna vaccine will be offered at the The Wally Choice Community Center at Glenfield Park, “as we realized many of Hispanic brothers and sisters want to be vaccinated however many of the current county sites are only operating during the work day,” Toller said. Many members of the community said they couldn’t afford to or would rather not miss a day’s pay, so the event was scheduled for evening hours, she said.

• On Sunday, June 6 from 9 a.m. through 1 p.m., Pfizer vaccines will be available for those 12 and up at the Wally Choice Center, in an event run in collaboration with Essex County. Pre-registration is preferred, but walk-ins will be taken as well. So far, only the Pfizer vaccine is available to those under 18.

• On Saturday, June 12, Moderna will be offed in an event at Glenfield Park. The weekend scheduling is meant to accommodate people who can’t make events or vaccine sites Monday through Friday, Toller said.

More information is available at info@mfee.org or 877-442-MFEE.