Sweetgreen manager Mark Niec had been searching for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for a month without success. Finally, a treasure trove of available times popped up on the New York City registration website. He clicked, thinking that his search was finally over.
“Appointment No Longer Available.”
Niec’s experience is all too familiar to New Yorkers: countless hours spent tracking TurboVax’s tweets, refreshing multiple browser windows for days, and even trekking to another borough or hours outside the city after settling for whatever leftover slots were available.
The city’s mobile vaccine clinic aims to correct that problem by bringing the shot directly to New Yorkers that have qualified for months but lack the time, computer savvy, or luck necessary to get an appointment. The first buses, which have already made stops in Sunset Park and Williamsburg, exclusively cater to restaurant workers. After a weeklong hiatus to deal with the aftermath of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause, the mobile clinic returned to service this week, offering shots of Moderna with the promise to return 28 days later with the second doses.
“I would’ve gotten my vaccine a lot sooner if it were easier,” says Niec, who lives in Greenpoint, and was finally vaccinated when the mobile vaccine clinic set up outside Lilia in Williamsburg. “I work in a restaurant. I’m not on my phone every second.”
NYC’s goal to vaccinate 5 million New Yorkers by June is progressing at a steady clip, with almost half of the city’s population — 3.2 million people — having received at least one dose as of this past weekend. But there is a jarring inequity in how those shots have been distributed.
According to a New York Times report, neighborhoods that are predominantly Black and Latinx lag behind white neighborhoods in vaccination percentages by double digits. More than half the population in places like the Upper East Side and the Financial District have been fully vaccinated, while Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods like Corona and East New York have barely crossed the 20 percent mark.
There are several factors that account for this disparity: There are fewer vaccination sites per square mile in the outer boroughs, a hesitancy among certain communities to be subjected to novel medical procedures, and the very nature of people’s jobs.
“Our workers’ schedules and lives are such that there is a very small window of time where they can get to a clinic and get vaccinated,” says restaurateur Sean Feeney, co-founder of Restaurants Organizing Advocating Rebuilding (ROAR), which partnered with the city to deploy its first mobile vaccination buses. “This brings the vaccine directly to them.”
According to Feeney, who is also a partner behind popular restaurants like Lilia and Misi, the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. time frame when the bus takes appointments and walk-ins is the “sweet spot” for most restaurant workers to get vaccinated, as it’s before the pre-shift rush for dinner service. In Sunset Park, a delivery worker got vaccinated right after the lunch rush with his motorcycle helmet still on. And when the buses arrived outside Lilia in Williamsburg on Saturday, one of the first people in line was Victor Dominguez, a porter at nearby Llama Inn, who showed up to get the vaccine in the middle of his morning shift, wearing his white cook’s shirt and a branded hat from wholesaler Southeast Asia Food Group.
“It was very easy,” says Dominguez. “When else would I have the time to do this?”
The mobile vaccination clinic is actually two buses, one for administering the vaccine to up to six people at a time, and the other for the 15-minute observation window to screen for any side effects and allergic reactions.
Each bus has been retrofitted by Promobile Kitchen, an experiential events marketing company that pivoted earlier in the pandemic to help José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen deploy meals to the unemployed. They are now working with the city on mobile clinics to bring the vaccine to underserved communities.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 80 to 90 percent of the back of the house of restaurants are immigrant workers,” says Promobile Kitchen’s director of client services Giovanni Martinez, who started his career working in restaurants. “This will be the real equitable distribution for the last 25 percent of the population.”
The buses are currently averaging about 125 doses a day, and can administer up to 200. “It’s almost like a restaurant opening where the first couple of days you don’t do as many covers, and ramp up from there,” Feeney says.
Two hundred shots may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to a megasite like the Javits Center, which can clear more than 8,000 shots a day. But for restaurant workers, many of whom may have documentation challenges or inflexible work schedules, this may be the only way to get the vaccine. The entire process — registration, canvassing nearby restaurants, verifying walk-ups — is handled by people in the hospitality industry, who are sensitive to the needs of the workers and their various backgrounds.
The mobile clinics also serve as billboards in communities where getting the vaccine is not top of mind, or barriers of technology and language are too great. In Sunset Park, hundreds of mostly Chinese locals stopped by the buses to inquire about receiving the vaccine. The shots on the bus were all spoken for, but translators from the city’s Test & Trace Corps were on hand to help make appointments and route people to nearby brick-and-mortar vaccination sites. New waves of curious people would arrive every few minutes, speaking Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, all buzzing with the energy that follows a celebrity around. In this case, the star is the vaccine.
“Based on the success of this, there will probably be other buses based in other industries and communities,” says Feeney.
Easier access and outreach is needed now more than ever. Although just half the city’s population has received at least one shot of any vaccine, appointments are piling up for the first time — more than 40,000 time slots are currently unclaimed on TurboVax, a popular aggregator for appointments from the many city, state, and pharmacy websites.
“Over the past couple of weeks, traffic has fallen off a cliff,” says TurboVax creator Huge Ma, who cites a 90 percent drop in traffic week over week. “I think the next step is a lot of offline outreach and bringing the vaccine to the people. That’s not stuff that any bot can automate.”
To reach its vaccination goals, New York City will need boots on the ground in underserved communities, and to deploy more mobile clinics that promote and administer the vaccine.
“There’s a reason why the numbers are low in those communities — maybe people aren’t able to log online, maybe they feel uncomfortable, maybe they need education,” says chef JJ Johnson, who owns Fieldtrip in Harlem. “We know those areas are what make New York City go. They’re the working class of New York. So if we make that investment, that might help rejuvenate the city even quicker than we imagined.”