Hospital workers (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
The current process to secure a COVID-19 vaccine is, to put it frankly, a logistical nightmare. Appointments have been cancelled by testing sites due to supply shortages, and vaccines were frequently being defrosted and then thrown out due to missed appointments and limited eligibility criteria. This was expected.
Contributing to the problems with vaccine distribution is the inaccessibility for seniors, especially in parts of eastern Queens. Successful vaccination often requires digital fluency and a mode of transportation – two large barriers that complicate a speedy rollout to our most vulnerable neighbors. One of our parents (ages 71 and 74) struggled tremendously navigating the highly decentralized systems to find an appointment despite not facing these technical and logistical barriers.
Vaccine distribution spotlights fundamental problems in our city’s health-care infrastructure that disproportionately impact elders. However, these issues date back to far before the pandemic. A series of management mistakes and a lack of political will to support investing in our health-care infrastructure permitted three major Queens hospitals to close in 2009. This has led to a borough that is uniquely unprepared to handle the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the most impactful closures was St. Vincent Catholic Medical Center, which served Forest Hills, Rego Park, Maspeth, Glendale, and Corona. The medical center’s bankruptcy was partially fueled by slow reimbursements from the government to support health care for the elderly, like Medicare. The city should heed the lessons from the last recession, we cannot divest again from preventative care or health-care infrastructure when city finances tighten. We must choose to have a moral budget that prioritizes our health and wellbeing.
Increasing hospital bed capacity in Queens needs to be one of the top priorities as we rebuild from the pandemic. Queens currently has 1.7 beds for every 1,000 residents, whereas Manhattan has three times that capacity. Unsurprisingly, bed shortages led to hospitals like Elmhurst being overwhelmed during the pandemic. Post-pandemic, we must focus on investing in new infrastructure to replace institutions such as St. Vincent. We must fight to maintain and buoy existing capacity in hospitals and health centers. New York City has left Parkway Hospital in Forest Hills empty and idle for the past 10 years, but with some effort it can be rehabilitated into a useful place to deliver wellness services for our community.
We have an obligation to support our seniors in Queens. It is a vulnerable group, most reliant on and hurt by the diminished accessibility of health services in the borough. Demographically, the communities of Rego Park, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens, and Richmond Hill (City Council District 29) form one of the oldest areas in the city. We must take the initiative to increase our ability to care for our parents and grandparents.
A new mayoral administration and a new City Council presents a tremendous opportunity to commit to a moral budget that protects the most vulnerable and elderly. New leaders must also accept the radical responsibility to truly address social determinants of health, such as food insecurity, affordable housing, and economic instability.
This past year has reminded us that there is nothing more important than our ability to stay healthy – our overall physical, emotional, and social wellbeing. Nothing can fix the social-emotional toll of partial or full isolation from friends and family, or of the loss of loved ones. We are collectively suffering from a trauma exacerbated by racial and economic inequality.
As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Now more than ever our city must commit to ensure a robust health-care infrastructure. So let’s support our seniors. Let’s restitch our social safety net and ensure we have the capacity to repair what is not yet broken. Let’s heal together.
Douglas Shapiro is a candidate for New York City Council in Queens, Council District 29. Reva Singh is an undergraduate at Princeton University. On Twitter @Shapiro4NYC.