COVID-19 infection rates in New York state have plummeted in recent months, thanks in large part to the development and deployment of several safe and effective vaccines.
But reaching population-wide protection from the virus means getting the vaccine into the arms of as many people as possible – including farmworkers and other traditionally vulnerable, marginalized populations in New York’s cities and rural areas.
“Catastrophic health disparities have been a long-standing reality for many communities in New York state and globally,” said Jennifer Tiffany, executive director of Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s New York City Programs.
“The COVID pandemic deepened these health disparities,” she said, “and shed light on them in a way that can spark sustained action to build health equity – long lives and optimal well-being for all.”
In an effort to address these disparities, Tiffany is lead investigator on a two-year, $200,000 grant that stems from an effort between the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy and the Extension Foundation, called the Extension Collaborative on Immunization Teaching & Engagement (EXCITE). This initiative, which serves all land-grant universities, is part of an interagency agreement between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture - National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The grant, “NY Cornell Cooperative Extension Adaptive Intervention Partnership to Vaccinate Marginalized Populations Including Farmworkers,” was selected for funding through EXCITE. The project aims to help promote vaccine confidence and uptake in vulnerable communities in eight New York counties, both upstate and downstate.
Neil Lewis Jr. ’13, assistant professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, joins Tiffany in leading the grant, the goal of which is to engage socially vulnerable, marginalized communities – including farmworkers – in effective vaccine intervention partnerships to enhance uptake of COVID-19 and other vaccinations.
“It is important to remember that this pandemic is not over,” Lewis said. “Although we have made great progress, the benefits of that progress have not been shared by all. While the more privileged members of our society have been able to get vaccinated and return to their ‘normal’ lives, many of the people on the margins who are doing the essential work required to sustain this nation have not. This partnership is about changing that.”
The project team includes the Cornell Farmworker Program, CCE programs in Suffolk, Delaware and Cayuga counties as well as NYC, and their extensive networks of community partners including Finger Lakes Community Health, the NYC Community Healthcare Network, and county health departments. Both Lewis and Tiffany work intensively with Weill Cornell Medicine, the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and the Cornell Center for Health Equity.
Priority populations, according to Tiffany and Lewis, include sub-groups experiencing high levels of health disparities, social vulnerability, physical isolation and reduced vaccine access in high-inequality rural, urban and suburban communities in New York state.
Populations are identified through their social vulnerability index (SVI) score, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) measure of a community’s ability to prevent human suffering and financial loss in a disaster.
More than 30,000 people throughout NYS will be reached through this pilot project. They include people from all five counties in New York City; Cayuga County, which has a sizable migrant farmworker population; plus Delaware and Suffolk counties.
Cornell Cooperative Extension programs in each county will support this project.
“The communities and organizations engaged in this initiative reflect the deep diversity, strength and demand for health equity of New York state,” Tiffany said. “Because this is part of a national initiative, what we learn and do here will inform work far beyond state borders.”