Bong Jun Kim, 61, who came to the United States from Seoul, Korea 24 years ago still wants to get his citizenship. But because of language barriers, taking the test is difficult for him. Getting an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine hasn’t been easy for him either.
However, despite all the difficulties he’s faced this past year due to the pandemic, he finally managed to get his first shot of the Moderna vaccine last Saturday. He’s relieved. But says he wouldn’t have been able to get it without the help of the Minkwon Center, a local nonprofit in Flushing, Queens.
A friend told him that the center was offering up vaccines. So he called and after 10 days, he was matched with a local Rite-Aid drug store. He is now trying to reschedule his second dose appointment, but confesses that he is a bit lost as to how to go about doing so.
For some immigrants, like Kim, who speak little English, every step of the vaccine process is difficult. Even as the city has expanded its vaccine eligibility, with 31 percent of residents fully dosed and 47 percent still waiting for their second, many like Kim face obstacles in getting vaccinated.
Across demographics, there is a considerable gap in vaccination rates among people in lower-income brackets and in Black, Latino, and immigrant communities, according to the New York City Health Department. Several non-profit groups in the Asian community, like the Minkwon Center, have stepped in to fill the gap and offer assistance to those that can’t navigate the process.
“I’m in my early 60’s and I just didn’t make the cut of getting early eligibility but Minkwon Center was able to help me get the vaccine earlier than I would have imagined,” said Kim.
Immigrants, especially elderly ones, have had a particularly hard time finding vaccine appointments because of language problems and digital issues. In the Asian community, only 17 percent have received their first dose. Even those that are 65 and older, who were eligible early on in the vaccination process, had trouble getting appointments. In the Latino and Black community, similarly, only 18 percent and 16 percent of those over 65, respectively, have had the first shot.
In the Korean community, the Minkwon Center, a group that aims to help advocate for community members, has taken on a mission to help people in the community, who don’t speak English or have trouble making their way around web portals, sign up for vaccination appointments.
Hanna Jo, a health navigator for Minkwon Center, said the group decided to launch this effort when it noticed that there was no centralized way for people to sign up for vaccines in the city. Instead, residents had to visit the individual sites of private clinics, pharmacies, and hospitals, to get in line for the vaccine. New York State, too, has a separate portal. Each of the sites often requires signing up for an online account. For immigrants that don’t even have email addresses that process gets even more complicated. Even navigating phone answering menus proved challenging for many in the community who can’t understand English.
“It is very difficult for seniors, even though they were the first to be eligible for it,” said Jo of the Minkwon Center. “A lot of the seniors, they don’t have emails, and they don’t know how to use the internet. Some don’t even have internet, so we just started this program to help them make appointments for the vaccine,” she said. “Usually the younger tech-savvy people can get appointments faster.”
After calling into the main center’s hotline, which provides assistance in Korean and in English, individuals would be waitlisted for the next available vaccination appointment. Acting as a liaison for other vaccination sites, such as local pharmacies and medical centers, the center would then book the schedule for them.
So far, the center has helped 600 individuals get their first dose. According to Jo, they receive about 100 calls a day, and not just from Korean speakers. Some people are calling with questions surrounding undocumented individuals and how they can receive the vaccine. Many of these people, says Jo, fear getting a vaccine might weigh against them when they apply for citizenship because it might be interpreted as them receiving public benefits. The response has sponsored the organizers at Minkwon.
“We’re thinking of maybe kind of moving, changing directions a little bit and trying to do more outreach for the community members that have not gotten the vaccine yet, or even correcting misinformation,” said Jo.
Korean Community Services, another nonprofit that services many Koreans in the Queens area, also offers more than 160 appointments per day. It mostly signs up individuals to get their shots with an urgent care facility that they have partnered with in their own building. The center has also been getting calls about how getting the shot may affect someone’s immigration status; it too has assured dozens of concerned community members that it will not affect the citizenship process.
State regulators also make the same point. According to the New York State Covid 19 FAQ page, New York does not require individuals to reveal their immigration status. The state’s website also says that any information collected during the process will not be shared with any other agency.
The federal government and legal experts offer assurances as well. According to Ilona Bray JD of Nolo, a website which offers legal advice, using “free COVID-19 vaccination services will not be considered in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ public charge determinations.”
“I feel like this might be another kind of case where community members may be scared of getting any benefits that’s provided by the government,” said Jo.
The elderly and those fearful of jeopardizing their immigration status have been hesitant to get vaccines or have had trouble with the process for obvious reasons. But the young and tech-savvy have had a hard time too. Parker Zhao, 27, a PhD student in economics, for example, says he had trouble navigating the various sites to find an appointment. He noticed, in frustration, there was a mismatch from site to site as to who was actually eligible.
“It was confusing because when I was first looking through it, they said that the eligibility had been expanded but when I checked on some websites, they would still say that’s only eligible for people over 65,” said Zhao.
But he too received help from another Asian community non-profit, which he could not remember the name of, to register for an appointment by filling out a Google form. His friend had told him about the sign-up.
“If it weren’t for that nonprofit organization, I wouldn’t have been able to find a vaccine slot as quickly,” said Zhao, who added that he would have spent countless hours refreshing sites to get an appointment.
As for Kim, Rite-Aid gave him an assigned time for his second dose, but he can’t make it. So he’s trying to figure out how to reschedule the appointment—yet another language and technological hurdle to overcome.