By Eddie Velazquez
Syracuse city officials and local public health education leaders announced the creation of a new outreach program Thursday focused on encouraging hard-to-reach and at-risk residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
To create the CARES for COVID-19 response program, the city — in partnership with the local Center for Healthcare Workforce Development — was awarded nearly $600,000 in funds by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Through the program, the Center for Healthcare Workforce Development, which is the non-profit arm of the local healthcare workers union 1199 Service Employees International Union (SEIU), will seek to hire 20 part-time community healthcare workers to engage with populations at risk and underserved in the city. The ultimate focus of the program, officials said, is to promote COVID-19 vaccination and other mitigation strategies to prevent the spread of the virus.
“These are your neighbors. These are trusted allies that will be meeting people where they are,” said Mayor Ben Walsh of the community health workers during the press event. “(They will be) knocking on doors, sitting in living rooms, engaging and discussing all the concerns people have.”
The CARES program will prioritize racial and ethnically diverse residents including Syracuse’s Black, Hispanic and East Asian populations, according to a release issued by the mayor’s office. Additionally, community health care workers will also focus on people living with mental, physical and developmental disabilities, as well as aging residents, those living with chronic health conditions and individuals living in impoverished neighborhoods.
LaToya Jones, a central New York healthcare organizer working closely with 1199SEIU’s Healthcare Education Project, said community healthcare workers will work 16 hours a week, and the city and its partners will aim to finish training toward the end of the year.
Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens said the city and 1199 SEIU are currently in the process of creating contracts for these part-time positions.
“We are hoping we can get contracts executed on the city’s side before we make financial commitments,” Owens said. “We are hoping to finish all of that by the end of this year. Once we make sure we have contracts, then we’ll begin the process of letting people know these positions are available.”
“This project will definitely fill in the gap in the safety net by developing community healthcare workers in our area,” Jones said. “It will build capacity and equip our city to better respond to future pandemics and public health care emergencies. It is important to keep communities and families informed by meeting people where they are.”
The community healthcare workers will aid in answering questions from residents, as well as helping dispel myths regarding the virus and the vaccine itself, Jones said. They will present residents with data from the state and county to illustrate the public health reality, she added.
Part of the need for this program, Jones said, is the contrast between the city’s vaccination rate versus those of the county and state. In the county, the state estimates 70% of the eligible population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. In New York, 73% of the eligible population has received at least one dose. The state also charts the vaccination rate for every zip code. In the 13207 area, which contains most of Syracuse’s South Side, the vaccination rate sits at 60%.
Syracuse’s neighborhood with the lowest vaccination rate is the city’s West Side, or zip code 13204. The vaccination rate in this neighborhood, according to state data, hovers at 51%.
Syracuse Community Connections Executive Director Larry Williams deemed the creation of the program a “life saving announcement.”
“This is about impacting and saving the lives of our (community),” Williams said. “This is the precipice of helping to save and change the lives of those we love. Many of us know too many stories that we need to dispel those rumors, deal with facts and help save lives.”
Eddie Velazquez is a freelance reporter in Central New York. You can share news tips with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @ezvelazquez