Montclair resident Kathryn Allen-Curry, from left, organized a recent vaccination event at the Union Baptist Church. Seen with her are Dr. Renee Baskerville, who is serving as a community outreach and medical adviser to the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence’s vaccine outreach effort, MFEE member Traci Wilkes-Smith and MFEE community health worker Robin Curry. (COURTESY MONTCLAIR FUND FOR EDUCATIONAL EXCELLENCE)

By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

Montclair continues to pace well ahead of New Jersey overall when it comes to coronavirus vaccinations. But community leaders and health workers say they still worry it’s not enough.

“We realized we have kind of run into a brick wall, because I think everyone who wished to be vaccinated is vaccinated, and trying to reach those that are just against it is our biggest hurdle right now,” Aminah Toler, one of three grant-funded community health workers working with the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence on outreach, said.

Among the major issues in play, she said — fear and lack of information. MFEE workers and others are continuing to focus in particular on vaccine distribution and education among Montclair’s Black and brown communities.

“Based on the numbers, our minority community in Montclair is not vaccinated at the rate it needs to be. I think we need to take advantage of vaccinations being available,” Councilman David Cummings, who represents Montclair’s Fourth Ward and who has been helping connect the MFEE workers to community groups, said. “When COVID first hit, its devastation was felt immediately. Vaccinations are available and we need to get them to the people who need them. It’s no longer an issue of access.” 

As of Tuesday, 71% of all Montclair residents had been fully vaccinated, and 78% had at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the New Jersey COVID-19 dashboard. Statewide, just 59% of adults were fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

But in recent weeks, cases have seen an uptick. As of Monday, Montclair was up to 2,785 cases — 20 over the last week. In early and mid-June, there were often as few as one to four new cases a day. New Jersey, similarly, has seen growing cases — fueled in part by the now-dominant and highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus.

State data Montclair’s health department shared with the MFEE in early June showed Black and Hispanic or Latino residents making up a smaller portion of Montclair’s vaccinated population than they do of the township’s population overall. A spokesperson for the township Department of Health told Montclair Local updated breakdowns based on race and ethnicity aren’t available at the municipal level. 

But the same holds true throughout Essex County. Of those vaccinated in the county as of Tuesday, 22% were Black, according to state data —  but residents identifying as Black alone make up nearly 42% of the county population, according to Census estimates. The state data also shows 21% of those vaccinated are Hispanic or Latino, but those groups make up just under 24% of the county population, according to the Census. 

(The comparisons aren’t exact — 10% of those vaccinated are of unknown race or ethnicity, and 8% are counted as “other” in state data. In addition, the Census notes Hispanic and Latino people may be of any race, so individuals are counted both in those categories and race categories. But the disparities give a rough indication of the gaps.) 

“We’re not trying to force people to get vaccinated,” Cummings said. “We want to provide the opportunity, with the facts.” 

That approach has been at the center of the MFEE’s initiative on vaccine outreach to Black and brown communities, which began in March.

The MFEE’s health workers have registered community members during food distribution events by Montclair Mutual Aid (of which Toler is a founding member) and by Essex County. They’ve helped connect people to vaccination through local CVS pharmacies, Mountainside hospital and the county’s mobile vaccination program. The mobile program was at Montclair State University Monday, for a “Back to School Vaccine” day.

Toler said health workers heard from community members about the challenges they faced — for instance, being unable to get to mobile vaccination events that occurred during daytime or weekday hours while they were working, limited access to vaccine information or language barriers.

They scheduled vaccine clinics with evening and weekend hours at the Wally Choice Community Center in Glenfield Park. But still, Toler said, the health workers have seen vaccination slowing down. Some of that, she said, comes down to the persistent nature of misinformation.

“Hispanic families have reported that they’ve been told they have to pay for it, that they have to have medical insurance and that they will be reported to immigration if they take the vaccine,” she said. “Some African American families feel like it’s an experiment from the government. They don’t trust it. Some moms have said they’re not interested in getting their daughters vaccinated because there’s a possibility of a fertility issue.”

Montclair Local coronavirus dashboard

Coronavirus vaccinations are provided at no cost to the individual, regardless of insurance status. If an individual has insurance, it can be billed, but the individual will not be charged. Vaccine facilities do not ask about or report immigration status to other authorities. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there is no evidence any vaccines, including coronavirus vaccines, cause issues with fertility. 

“All we can do is continue to provide information on the vaccine, the safety of it, and let people make their own decision,” Toler said.

The community health workers have been meeting with leaders of nonprofit and community organizations, such as the Montclair Cobras junior football and cheerleading program, the township recreation department, the Brother to Brother and Sister to Sister mentoring programs, IMANI, the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation and youth coaches to try and reach deeper into the community.

With the help of those groups, they’re planning to distribute Google forms to collect information and register residents for vaccination. That’s in anticipation of having the county bring its mobile vaccination unit to Glenfield Park and the Wally Choice Community Center on Aug. 29, during a school supplies giveaway hosted by the Montclair Sentinels 16-87, an association of Montclair police officers of color.

During a Township Council meeting on July 20, Mayor Sean Spiller said getting as many people vaccinated as possible “is the way to put this pandemic behind us, get us back to where we want to be.”

In the same meeting, Councilman Peter Yacobellis said “people are getting nervous with the Delta variant now the dominant strain in the United States,” urging residents to not just get vaccinated, but continue testing. 

“If you know somebody who has not been vaccinated and is eligible, have that conversation with them,” Yacobellis said.

The township has been running vaccine clinics at the Montclair Health Department’s offices in the municipal building. Walk-ins are welcome. The next is Aug. 17, from 9 a.m. to noon.

The Health Department’s vaccination clinics are open to anyone 18 and over who resides or works in Montclair. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines will be available. Those who wish to receive the Moderna vaccine will be given an appointment on the day of the first vaccine for their second vaccination about 30 days after their first dose. 

The township has also scheduled vaccine events at community events and township locations.

“Overall, our goal is to get to individuals where they are at and therefore have been trying to provide vaccination opportunities at specific events where people will be at or locations that hopefully make it convenient.” Spiller told Montclair Local by Email.

The township has held town hall events, hoping to help spread information on vaccination, such as one on Aug. 3 featuring the assistant director of Mountainside hospital’s family residency program, Everett Schlam. An earlier event featured Chris Pernell, a Montclair resident and health equity officer with University Hospital in Newark, who had volunteered for COVID-19 vaccine trials herself, and whose father died from COVID-19 at the age of 78. Pernell discussed the disproportionate impact coronavirus has had on communities of color.

There are several other opportunities to be vaccinated in and near Montclair:

  • The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is available at local CVS pharmacies.
  • Moderna vaccines are available at Mountainside hospital via walk-in every Wednesday from noon to 5 p.m. The hospital also takes registration for appointments at 973-873-7787. 
  • Essex County continues to provide vaccinations at the former Kmart building in West Orange, located at 235 Prospect Ave., on Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It provides vaccinations at Essex County College, at 177 West Market Street in Newark, on Mondays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The county also releases a schedule of upcoming mobile vaccination events at essexcovid.org each week. 
  • Montclair State University will hold free vaccination clinics throughout the month of August, open to the general public. Clinics will be held on Aug. 16, 23 and 30 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. outside of the Panzer Athletic Center on campus. Walk-ins are permitted, but registration at Montclair.edu is preferred.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the MFEE community health workers as volunteers; they are paid through a grant.

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