The continuing COVID affliction in south Brooklyn exhibits numerous disinformation and separation
By Josefa Velasquez, Ann Choi and Clifford Michel, THE CITY. This article was originally published by THE TOWN
People walk down Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn. | Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY
In a city celebrating a vaccination-induced drop in COVID cases, Brooklyn’s south coast stands out as a landscape of ongoing suffering and loss.
Last month, 47 people died of COVID in the zone that stretched from Sea Gate and Coney Island in the west to Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach in the east – that’s just 1% of the city’s population but 4% of all virus deaths, Department of Health statistics show .
Up to six of the dead lived in a Coney Island nursing home designed for COVID patients. But even with this factored in, death and hospitalization rates in the region still far exceed those in the rest of the city.
With a city council member recently removed from office in the area and the other term in office limited to December 31, some candidates for the seats have used their campaigns to urge local residents to take the ongoing threat seriously – and vaccinate themselves allow.
They are fighting a disinformation campaign that includes posters with false claims that COVID was a hoax and vaccinations that cause infertility. The best way to fight anti-vaccination agents?
“Right now I’m using a Soviet term: propaganda, propaganda,” said Belarus-born Ari Kagan, who is running to succeed his chief, councilor Mark Treyger.
“More marketing and public announcements,” he added.
City Council nominee Ari Kagan leads Rep. Grace Meng through the shops along 86th Street in Brooklyn on May 24, 2021.
Combating “false claims”
Treyger, a Democrat that includes Coney Island, Gravesend and part of Brighton Beach, said many people in his district – home to a large Russian and former Soviet Union – did not see Mayor Bill de Blasio’s morning press conferences. They also don’t monitor social media for the latest pandemic news, which is usually in English.
Two in three Brighton Beach residents were born abroad – mostly European – and three-quarters of adults speak a language other than English at home. The neighborhood is also older, with one in four residents over 65.
Many Treyger members speak Russian, Urdu, Spanish, Cantonese, or another language at home.
“A number of families are receiving information beyond traditional media,” he said.
A local Russian-language radio station, Davidzon Radio, is a routine station for candidates looking to attract voters in the region. But for Kagan, campaigning also serves as an opportunity to proselytize about vaccines to sometimes skeptical audiences in communities where there is a lot of misinformation.
“We were on the Russian-language radio and talked about the importance of vaccination. It will help a lot to reopen the economy, ”said Kagan.
The head of the city’s Test & Trace Corps was also on the air, as was Coney Island Hospital CEO Svetlana Lipyanskaya, who speaks Russian – to “get the right information to combat false claims about this virus and try to Encourage people to get tested and vaccinated, ”Treyger said.
“It’s very different when the director of the hospital says that,” observed Kagan.
Meanwhile, councilor who serves the area’s eastern flank, Chaim Deutsch, has been dismissed by the council after pleading guilty of tax fraud – and leaving the area without representation by 2022.
The former office of Chaim Deutsch City Council in Sheepshead Bay remained idle as the district waited for a new representative to be elected on May 20, 2021.
Boris Noble ran for German seat but dropped out in March, citing long-range COVID symptoms, which he said made him tired and with brain fog.
As a former housing policy analyst for former Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz, Noble stepped into action to fill a void that opened when the pandemic shut down local community centers that served many Russian-speaking and elderly people.
The Apna Brooklyn Community Center, Russian Community Life Center, Manhattan Beach Neighborhood Senior Center, and Coney Island YMCA are among the spaces that have been partially or fully closed since last spring’s pandemic.
Noble began visiting residents at their homes to help translate and fill out documents such as forms for grocery stamps and other government benefits – a role the community centers had taken on.
Coney Island and Brighton Beach residents “rely more than anyone on community-based organizations and other nonprofits for services,” said Noble. “They have literally lost their only resource in filling out their papers.”
Organizations are slowly coming back to life by responding to COVID-related needs. The Coney Island YMCA offers remote training learning labs on days when younger hybrid students are not scheduled for class, and became a vaccination center last month.
Sam Moore, the executive director of Y, said the staff reached out to members to inform them of vaccine availability and to address any concerns they may have. For their part, the members are also trying to reconnect.
“Some of our members just emailed me because they just wanted to come over and say hello,” said Moore. “You are so used to seeing them every day when they come here to swim. You feel bad because you can’t have this connection. “
On the campaign trail, Kagan is constantly asked when senior centers, a staple in the community, will open their doors.
Kagan’s answer is simple: “Get vaccinated. That will help. “
Cultural competence is the key
With community centers closed, the offices of elected officials have taken on a new role in helping residents navigate vaccination appointments, unemployment benefits, and other services.
Elected state and city officials said residents who speak languages other than English will be heavily reliant on their offices throughout the pandemic. Congregation member Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), whose local office is on Sheepshead Bay Road, said there was still demand for a pandemic-related newsletter his office had produced in English and Russian.
“Not only is it necessary to know what a city agency does, what it is, but it’s incredibly important to do it in a language that people understand and that is done with cultural expertise,” said Mariya Markh, one former employee who is in former city council member of German district office Avenue U and is now running for his seat.
Mariya Markh is running for South Brooklyn City Council.
Citywide, four in ten people are fully vaccinated, and the rate for those over 65 is 65%.
But only 30% were vaccinated on Coney Island, 34% on Brighton Beach.
That’s less than half the rate in any other New York borough where seniors make up a similarly large proportion of the population, Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, in the postal code 10075, 70% of the residents are fully vaccinated.
Markh said a sustained effort is needed on behalf of the next councilor to ensure that more people in south Brooklyn are vaccinated.
Earlier this month, she became more concerned about misinformation after seeing posters around the district advocating vaccine reluctance and making false claims, including “Scientists have serious fertility concerns.”
“Anonymous entities are trying to spread messages that are inaccurate and based on none of the science we’ve seen and tell people that getting vaccinated is dangerous,” Markh said. “It is very important to make sure that community leaders are getting the right message across about what the science is and why it is important to get vaccinated.”
Markh is pushing for the city council to employ Deutsch staff to help voters with vaccine appointments and other services, beyond the planned departure of workers in July, Bklyner reported earlier this month.
“The relationship people have with the community has been built for years,” she said.
Stay at home
But explanations for low vaccination rates go beyond misinformation and reluctance, local leaders say.
“The elders tend to be vaccine advocates,” Noble said, “because their point of reference is what they grew up with as children,” as students lined up for life-saving smallpox and polio vaccinations.
As in other immigrant communities, locals say challenges with access to vaccination play a role.
Until recently, Coney Island had only one vaccination center – Abraham Lincoln High School, which was nearly impossible to get an appointment, and even more so for older people who lacked the technology or skills necessary.
And then there are the tens of thousands of seniors who are housebound all over the city.
Treyger sponsored a law earlier this year obliging the city to put in place a vaccination plan for home-bound seniors and publish regular progress reports, neighborhood by neighborhood.
That campaign began in March and then was briefly derailed because it relied on the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration temporarily suspended use after six people developed blood clots.
Avery Cohen, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, said 9,000 residents and 3,000 caregivers had been vaccinated.
More must be achieved, said Treyger – and also noted that the mandated reports have not yet been published.
Even some elderly people who are still physically mobile have been reluctant to leave their homes during COVID, many in high-rise buildings that rely on elevators, he said.
“I’ve heard from people who are afraid to go outside because it’s a very small common space,” Treyger said. “That is certainly a challenge.”
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