How Asians became the most vaccinated group against Covid-19 in New York City

Members of the Korean American Family Service Center who have helped people in Queens get vaccinated, on April 12, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Since last year, Phung Nguyen, 77, feared the worst would happen if she fell ill with Covid-19. She lives alone in the New York City borough of the Bronx, lost contact with her daughter years ago and only speaks Vietnamese.

When she heard of a vaccine that protects against the virus, she was determined to get it. But with limited ability to understand English and an eye condition that caused her vision to deteriorate, she needed help setting up an appointment. So, she turned to Mekong NYC, a small nonprofit that serves the Southeast Asian community in the city.

Michelle Bounkousohn, an organiser, helped her get vaccinated, although it took over a month.

"I really appreciate you and everybody at Mekong," Nguyen told Bounkousohn recently. "It seems like you went through a lot to take me that day."

Mekong NYC is one of several community-based organisations that have been instrumental in helping Asian American communities schedule vaccine appointments and translate Covid-19 information accurately. Months before city and state vaccination sites allowed for people to walk in without an appointment, these nonprofits had been working overtime to get shots in arms.

In New York City, vaccination efforts have fallen short in some immigrant and minority neighbourhoods. Organisers say many people would like to get vaccinated but could not schedule appointments or find answers to their questions. Many immigrants, organisers said, incorrectly assumed they were ineligible.

But Asian Americans are the most vaccinated demographic group in the city, according to city data. Sixty-eight per cent of the city's adult Asian population, which tops 680,000, has received at least one dose. White adults in the city are the next highest, at 49 per cent.

Vaccine recipients are asked to report their own race and ethnicity on forms, and vaccination facilities then report that data to the Citywide Immunisation Registry.

The numbers may reflect the hard work of the community-based organisations, which have taken on the brunt of outreach into these neighbourhoods.

"To be completely honest, I was very surprised to see that data because that has not been our anecdotal experience," said Carlyn Cowen, chief policy and public affairs officer at the Chinese-American Planning Council, a New York City-based organisation that is the nation's largest Asian American social services agency.

Despite the seemingly remarkable vaccination rate, many New Yorkers of Asian descent face a laundry list of complications that impedes vaccine access: immigration status, language barriers, lack of reliable internet and fear of violence.

The nonprofits have been working against the backdrop of a nationwide surge in anti-Asian attacks. Through the first quarter of this year, the New York Police Department is investigating or has solved about three dozen bias crimes against Asian Americans. In 2020, there were 28 reported anti-Asian hate crimes in the city, up from three the previous year.

Bounkousohn said they are especially concerned for seniors.

"If they don't have Phung's drive to really advocate for herself, or if they don't have connections to organisations like Mekong who can make an appointment for them, I really wonder when people will be able to get fully vaccinated," Bounkousohn said.

The barriers can easily discourage people who do not speak English and lack technology skills, said Cowen. The threat of violence has been a "huge deterrent" in getting seniors vaccinated.

"We have seniors that have been eligible for the vaccines but will not leave their houses to get it because they are terrified," said Cowen.

The glut of websites and providers to schedule vaccine appointments were notoriously confusing - even for English speakers - and city health sites suggested using a Google Translate plug-in for other languages, which sometimes mistranslates, Cowen added.

The Chinese-American Planning Council, which serves about 60,000 New Yorkers a year, helped community members navigate unemployment and eviction prevention and later began scheduling vaccination appointments remotely, Cowen said. The group also arranged for residents and staff members at its affordable senior housing program to be vaccinated on-site.

An elderly woman being assisted as she registers at a vaccination bus in New York City, on April 7, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Seniors who do not speak English have faced hurdles at vaccination sites without interpreters who could help explain the process and the forms that need to be signed.

Chhaya Chhoum, Mekong NYC's executive director, felt disheartened after taking her father and aunt to the mass vaccination site at Yankee Stadium. She planned to interpret for her relatives, who do not speak English, but was not allowed inside. She had brought her laptop with her, which was against stadium rules.

Her father and aunt, who are in their 60s and from Cambodia, called her from inside to interpret over the phone. No Khmer interpreters were available, she said.

"Things that I think public health should be doing, we have to do as an organisation, I have to do as an individual," she said.

The 10 staff members who work at Mekong NYC have taught themselves how to explain medical terms in Vietnamese and Khmer to dissuade fears of the vaccine. The group has helped more than 100 community members - many of whom are Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees - get vaccinated, Chhoum said.

In Queens, Joann Kim recently sat at the front desk of the Korean American Family Service Centre with a phone pressed to her ear as her computer cursor darted across the screen. The available vaccine appointments quickly disappeared as she clicked.

The centre, which typically serves survivors of gender-based violence, took on new responsibilities as the virus spread, said executive director Jeehae Fischer. Calls to the centre's hotline increased by 300 per cent during the pandemic, which meant staffers and volunteers fielded questions on testing and vaccines while still providing resources to domestic violence victims.

The group became a coronavirus information hub by setting up tables in front of Korean churches to answer parishioners' questions and taking calls from families across New York state and New Jersey. The need for help and vaccine information in Korean was so steep that Kim and Julie Rhee, a community and outreach assistant, were hired to hunt down vaccine appointments.

The group's clients, many of whom are uninsured or do not have legal status, are more comfortable turning to the family centre than to the city, Fischer said.

"We're on the ground really doing the work, we're really seeing what's happening," Fischer said. "We're experiencing it with them."

Data on Asian American populations, especially during the pandemic, has been patchy, incomplete and at times nonexistent, said Anita Gundanna, co-executive director of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families.

Data on Asian Americans is not typically disaggregated, meaning Asian and Pacific Islander identities are often lumped together and not differentiated by ethnicity or nationality.

People getting the Covid-19 vaccine at the American Museum of Natural History on April 23, 2021, in New York City. PHOTO: AFP

Although the demographic's high vaccination rate may seem like good news, Gundanna said she questions whether the data, while probably accurate, may perpetuate the model minority myth. Without disaggregated data, she said, it may appear as if Asian Americans as a whole are not struggling with vaccine access despite widening disparities within the community. Income inequality among Asian Americans has been climbing rapidly for years.

In December 2019, months before the virus spread throughout the state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill that would require state agencies to collect demographic data on many Asian ethnicities. This year's state budget included US$3 million (S$4 million) to fund disaggregation in Asian American data.

"For a very long time, we have just been ignored or invisible and made to struggle in silence," Gundanna said.

Ben Wei, executive director of the Covid Foundation, agreed. Unlike other community-based organisations, the Covid Foundation was created specifically to address needs during the pandemic, from donating personal protective equipment to signing up community members for vaccine appointments.

Wei, who was born in Chinatown and raised in Queens, said his group partnered with WGIRLS, a nonprofit that scheduled 30,000 vaccine appointments for people in New Jersey, to schedule appointments for Chinatown residents.

On a recent weekend, the groups held an event with 100 bilingual volunteers to collect community members' information to schedule appointments for them. That led to 339 scheduled appointments, according to WGIRLS.

Community-based organisations, he said, are filling the gaps government agencies have left behind.

"Ideally," Wei said, "the Covid Foundation shouldn't need to exist." Although it may be difficult to quantify the impact that community-based organisations have made in the vaccination effort, these groups have been a lifeline for their most vulnerable community members.

Since getting her first dose, Nguyen has been happily waiting for her second shot. Bounkousohn, the organiser from Mekong NYC, has been keeping Nguyen's vaccination card safe until they go back to the site.

"I feel a lot better," Nguyen said. "I feel less scared." Bounkousohn and Nguyen already have plans for once she is immunised: They're going to Chinatown to celebrate.

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