After Tanner Celestin, 27, arrived for her second COVID-19 vaccine appointment at Bushwick Educational Campus last Thursday evening, her confusion quickly turned into annoyance. This was the site she had visited for her first shot, but now it looked closed.
That frustration was fleeting because as Celestin walked toward the building, she was quickly intercepted by a volunteer with the mutual aid group Bed Stuy Strong.
They told her that the site had been relocated to a hub about a mile-and-a-half away. The volunteer handed Celestin a slip of paper with a code for a free Lyft to get to the new spot at 455 Jefferson Street, along with a flyer featuring a little map of the area.
“As soon as she explained that they're offering transportation there for free, I felt fine about it,” Celestin said.
Bushwick Educational Campus closed for vaccinations on April 25th as students returned to the four high schools located in the building. According to a spokesperson for the city Health Department, it’s one of several vaccine hubs across New York City that have moved as schools have reopened. He said the city had notified people via email, text and robocalls. But apparently, the message hasn’t always gotten through.
This past week, volunteers from Bed Stuy Strong and Bushwick Ayuda Mutua offered information, directions and free rides to about 400 people who showed up at the old location and did the same for about 300 people the week prior. The mutual aid groups have stationed people outside the former hub Thursday through Sunday for the last three weeks in a row.
The city put up a big blue sign at the site informing people in multiple languages that it’s closed, along with a small printout underneath listing the new address. But Kate Sweeney, a Bed Stuy Strong member who has helped coordinate the volunteer effort, says the city’s communication was lacking. The signage from Bed Stuy Strong looks clearer and contains more details than the city’s banner.
“A lot of neighbors are elderly, or English isn't their first language,” Sweeney said. “A lot of them just don't have the ability to walk over a mile to the new location or have a clear understanding of what’s happening.”
The groups’ initiative to help avoid missed second doses amid the relocation of the Bushwick hub is just the latest piece of an ongoing effort to bridge gaps in access and communication during the vaccine rollout—even if it means a bit of handholding.
At the new hub on Jefferson Street, the line of potential recipients curved around the corner Thursday evening. It included a mix of walk-ins and people with appointments. Workers at the site would not say whether people were missing second dose appointments there at a higher rate than normal.
Bed Stuy Strong and Bushwick Ayuda Mutua are among the dozens of mutual aid groups that sprung up early in the pandemic to connect neighbors and address pressing needs such as food insecurity.
Bed Stuy Strong added vaccine support in January to help people navigate the Byzantine online booking system that initially made it difficult for people to get appointments. The organization began to share resources, strategies and information with other mutual aid groups doing similar work. Bed Stuy Strong member Carolyn Ruvkun secured $10,000 in free trips for people to get vaccinated from the ride service Lyft. The operation has since swapped ride codes with other mutual aid groups that worked out a similar deal with Uber.
Now that walk-ins are available at clinics across the city and appointments are easier to come by, the group’s vaccine hotline is less in demand. But members are still committed to helping people traverse the last mile to their shots whenever necessary. Working on the vaccine support effort, the most pressing needs seem to change week to week, said Ruvkun. The confusion in Bushwick “felt like a gap we could fill to address a very specific communication breakdown," she said.
"We felt responsible because we had booked people appointments there and wanted to see them through the process," Ruvkun added.
Isabella Vitti, who was stationed at the Bushwick Educational Campus Thursday, said the group is transitioning to street canvassing. She planned to hand out flyers with a list of walk-in sites on her way home.
“I’m just giving those to people on the street and being like, ‘This is like open right now. You could go right now,’” she said. “Just to make it as easy as possible.”