MSF helps expand access to COVID-19 vaccinations in Brownsville and East New York

More resources needed to address health care disparities

United States 2021 © Nick Bayer/MSF

April 29 update: MSF partnered with the Brownsville Multi-Service Family Health Center (BMS) to help expand access to COVID-19 vaccinations in Brownsville and East New York from February until April, 2021. While MSF has finished its support for this effort, ongoing efforts are needed to help people in these and other underserved communities access COVID-19 vaccinations.

NEW YORK, April 2, 2021—The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is working with a community health center in Brooklyn to expand access to COVID-19 vaccinations in underserved neighborhoods, including supporting the opening of a vaccination site today in an area of East New York with one of the city's lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates.

Doctors Without Borders is working with BMS Family Health and Wellness Centers (BMS), a federally qualified health center (FQHC) providing free primary and specialized health care in Brownsville and East New York. While BMS had access to COVID-19 vaccines from government agencies, it requested additional administrative and logistical support from MSF to ensure as many people as possible could be vaccinated. After initially expanding vaccination activities in its existing health facilities, BMS has now opened a vaccination hub at St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York with the capacity to vaccinate at least 1,000 people per week.

"BMS has been providing some Covid-19 vaccination since January, but capacity has been significantly limited by insufficient staff, space and funding," said Kerry Dierberg, MSF project coordinator. "It is unfortunate that it has taken longer for people in Brownsville and East New York to have access to a vaccination site with greater capacity, while other areas of New York City had the resources to scale up months ago. It takes more than nurses and vaccines to administer COVID-19 vaccinations, and a one-size-fits-all approach of providing communities with vaccines is inadequate. Underserved communities should have equal access to the resources and assistance required to vaccinate as many people as possible. It is vital to locate vaccination sites close to people in underserved areas, and to ensure adequate staffing and funding for administrative tasks, such as scheduling appointments."

The comparatively lower COVID-19 vaccination rates in low-income and predominantly Black or Hispanic communities such as Brownsville and East New York are emblematic of broader racial and economic disparities in access to health care in the United States. Vaccinations lag behind the city average, while mortality rates are higher. East New York, for example, includes the ZIP code with the highest COVID-19 mortality rate in New York City.

"As an FQHC, BMS's mission is to provide high-quality, affordable, health care for medically underserved communities," said Dr. Camille Taylor-Mullings, Chief Medical Officer, BMS Family Health and Wellness Centers. "Many area residents and patients were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and we are excited to have the opportunity to provide added COVID-19 services for our community through the launch of the BMS@St. Paul Community Baptist Church Vaccine Hub. Without the assistance and partnership of MSF and the partnership with Reverend Brawley and St. Paul's, this would not have been possible. This collaboration of supportive relationships is the hallmark of our collective organizations' commitment to community health."

People in Brownsville and East New York face substantial barriers to obtaining COVID-19 vaccinations. Many are unable to take time off from work or family responsibilities to attend medical appointments. Transportation time and costs pose additional challenges, especially if vaccination sites are distant. Scheduling vaccinations online is also more difficult due to limited internet connectivity, and language barriers present obstacles in scheduling appointments or obtaining information about vaccines.

Vaccines that require two doses may also increase the burden, underlining the importance of making the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine available as an option in areas where poverty or geographic isolation make it more difficult for individuals to reach appointments. For example, MSF is involved in an effort in Puerto Rico to provide the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to 6,000 people who have not otherwise had access to COVID-19 vaccinations, decreasing the time it takes for people to become fully vaccinated.

"Now that vaccines are more widely available in the U.S., the social inequities in health care can be seen in the vaccination rates of underserved communities," Dierberg said. "Reducing the barriers to COVID-19 vaccination is as essential as the vaccines themselves—vaccines only work when people can access them. In Brownsville and East New York, the capacity for vaccination is increasing, but now more efforts and investments are needed to ensure people will effectively reach the site and get vaccinated."

MSF's support for BMS:

BMS requested support from MSF to coordinate its COVID-19 vaccination activities and launch a new vaccination site, after MSF previously supported the organization in running a COVID-19 testing site during the first wave of the pandemic. In recent weeks, MSF provided administrative and logistical support to increase COVID-19 vaccinations at three BMS clinics by mobilizing volunteers and hiring administrative staff. To set up the new site at St. Paul Community Baptist Church, MSF supported aspects of planning, budget development, human resources, training, procurement, and the establishment of a "cold chain" for the storage of vaccines. MSF staff are not administering the vaccines to patients, which is done by BMS and other contracted partners.