Montclair officials and community leaders are rallying to discuss the facts, fears and myths they worry are slowing the coronavirus vaccination rate in the brown and Black communities. And some advocates say lack of internet and transportation, language barriers and the limited hours of vaccine clinics will expand inequities, if not addressed. 

Councilman David Cummings attended a Zoom conference on Feb. 9 with Gov. Phil Murphy and other officials to discuss the rollout of vaccinations to communities of color. He said Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver’s suggestion to “take the vaccines to the people utilizing houses of worship, community centers and senior center locations” was spot-on.

“It was really an opportunity to tackle a challenge of getting Black residents to trust the process and understand this is not an experiment. I think it’s important the state not only make sure minorities have access to the vaccines, but they understand the importance of utilizing locations where they feel comfortable. Houses of worship fit that description,” Cummings said.

St. Paul Baptist Church in Montclair has put in a request to be a vaccine location, he said.

In early February, Murphy announced the launch of a community-based vaccination partnership through churches and community sites to provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines to 15,000 residents in March alone. Each site will be able to vaccinate approximately 1,500 people per week, and vaccinations at each location will take place over a two-week period, followed by a return for second doses.  

Also this month, Essex County announced a partnership with Black and brown clergy members to encourage their communities to get vaccinated. Clergy from Newark, East Orange and Bloomfield took part in a press event, with the participants getting their own first doses. 

Physician and former Councilwoman Renee Baskerville said the impact of racial injustice was highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis.

“The pandemic hit harder and promises to have a greater and more lasting impact on these persons of color,” she said. “African Americans were the first to lose their jobs and businesses, and because they reside in households with lower net wealth compared to white persons and have more persons per household, the impact is more severe.

“My colleagues and I frequently discuss the medical, psychological and spiritual adverse impacts of years of systemic racism that are borne out by the data.”  

Baskerville noted, for example, that Black, brown and Indigenous people have higher incidences of diabetes, heart and lung disease, hypertension, obesity and other life-compromising maladies.

“These and other compromises to the health of these persons of color, coupled with economic insecurity and attendant food and housing insecurity, are compounding the economic crisis in these communities, that data indicate never fully recovered from the 2008 recession and financial crisis,” she said. 

“To make sure that this pandemic and the current recession do not become other racial and ethnic generational retardants, the state and Montclair must recognize race and ethnicity as high-risk factors, and appropriately prioritize Black, brown and Indigenous people for vaccinations,” Baskerville said.

She suggested a targeted marketing and education effort to assuage fears, especially of Black Americans who are suspicious of medical institutions after the Tuskegee experiment on Black people (a 40-year experiment by the U.S. Public Health Service following Black men with syphilis, in which patients weren’t told of their diagnosis and denied treatment), and the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who while undergoing treatment for cancer in the 1950s had cells extracted from her and used for medical research without her informed consent. 

“Medical fields made billions from using her cells, and the Lacks family has received neither an apology nor compensation,” Baskerville said. “These two cases, along with the fact that the COVID-19 vaccines have only emergency use authorization and not FDA approval, makes it even harder to get these populations to feel comfortable receiving the vaccine.” 

Cummings had previously suggested to Montclair Local distrust in institutions — in particular regarding medical issues — might account for racial and ethnic disparities seen in students’ plans to return to Montclair schools. According to district data, 38% of white students plan to remain remote, but 61% of the Black student population and 55% of Latino students would remain remote. Cummings, who is Black, also noted the Tuskegee experiments — saying they’re “something we will never forget.” 

Baskerville is proposing a campaign called “We’re Going to Be … COVID FREE!” with captains assigned to multifamily dwellings and wards to educate and coordinate vaccination appointments, along with transportation.

Mayor Sean Spiller, who created the township’s COVID-19 Task Force late last year, said hosting town halls such as a recent one in January and another coming in a few weeks is important. The sessions feature doctors and other people of color answering questions about the vaccines. 

“Among Black and brown communities, there is a very real anxiety about the COVID-19 vaccines,” Spiller said. “A lot of it, especially in the Black community, is rooted deeply in a history that includes the Tuskegee experiments and other abuses. We have to acknowledge with empathy these historic experiences.” 

The township has been sharing information through the local NAACP, which recently asked its Health Committee chair to focus on the vaccine for 2021. “Right now, vaccine supply is a big challenge,” Spiller said.

As of Feb. 8, the most recent data, almost 8 percent — or 3,025 — of Montclairians had received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine, he said.

NAACP President Al Pelham agreed that trust is an issue, but said lack of internet access and knowledge of how to work it, along with transportation, are barriers, especially among senior groups. The organization hopes to help provide access to the internet and transportation for people who have made appointments, he said. 

Spiller said at least 200 people have been transported to the county vaccine clinic by the township. Residents can call the health department to get further information. 

The NAACP is planning a Feb. 26 session advising how to get a vaccination appointment.

Resident Jose German, who runs the NorthEast Earth Coalition and is an advocate for the Latino community, said most Latinos in New Jersey are essential workers, which makes them more vulnerable to contracting the virus. 

“The fact that Latinos live in dense housing situations aggravate their vulnerability. They live in crowded situations,” said German, who was named one of the 100 most prominent Latinos in New Jersey for 2020-21 by Latino Spirit.
But many in the Latino community are skeptical about the vaccine’s side effects based on social media rumors and, too often, education and information on the vaccines that comes through only in English, he said.

German suggested that the task force conduct informational programs in Spanish, that clinics include Spanish-speaking health professionals, and that the clinics be easy to walk to and have after-work hours. He also suggested that Catholic churches could be host sites for pop-up clinics. 

Township health department officials did not return inquiries on any initiatives to grant greater access to people of color to get greater access to the vaccine.

Pelham and Spiller, who is also vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, have been proponents of getting teachers vaccinated as essential workers, to get schools open. But Pelham said that vaccinating people in poorer communities should be a priority. 

Last year, 17.5% of all Montclair COVID-19 cases were from Latino and Black communities — but accounted for 36 percent of Montclair’s coronavirus deaths, Spiller said.

The census’s most recent estimates show that people identified as Black alone make up about 22% of Montclair’s population, and those identified as Hispanic (of any race) at about 10% of the population.

No deaths from COVID-19 have been reported this year in those communities, the mayor said. The township has seen three coronavirus deaths overall this calendar year, and 64 since the pandemic began.