Columbia University Hosts Harlem Community Vaccination Site

Victoria Benitez
April 13, 2021

Columbia University’s Wellness Center and Columbia Doctors hosted their first-ever community pop-up vaccination site at The Forum on Columbia’s Manhattanville campus this past weekend. Five hundred residents from Harlem, Morningside Heights, and Washington Heights were vaccinated, providing relief for some of New York’s most underserved populations.

Studies show that African Americans and Latino are getting vaccinated at much lower rates than other ethnic groups in New York City. According to the most recent New York City Health Department statistics, just 21% of African Americans and 24% for Latino have received one shot, in comparison to 37% of whites and 45% of Asian New Yorkers.

“The challenges that vulnerable and underserved communities face in gaining access to COVID-19 vaccines are well known, and we have been committed to overcoming them,” said Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger. “The Community Pop-Up Vaccination Site has quickly delivered on its promise, and I am grateful to the Columbia doctors and health care workers who have made it possible."

Dr. Olajide Williams, director of the Wellness Center, and Dr. Rafael Lantigua, dean’s special advisor to Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s Office of Community Service programs took the lead in getting the Pop-Up Vaccination site up and running because they saw the need for more locations for vaccine distribution in Harlem and Washington Heights. The initiative is expected to operate every weekend until the end of May. Those interested can email the Wellness Center for scheduling and additional information. 

“Inequitable access to healthcare resources and treatment is a major challenge facing communities of color”, says Dr. Williams, chief of staff, Department of Neurology New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University. “We have seen these barriers play out in access to the COVID vaccines even though communities of color continue to be hospitalized and die at disproportionately high rates. As numbers continue to spike we must align ourselves as medical professionals, community activists, civic leaders, and everyday citizens to stop this pandemic in its tracks by making vaccination easy-to-obtain for all members of our society regardless of their wealth or skin color.”

Dr. Williams is also the founder of Hip Hop Public Health, the national nonprofit dedicated to fostering positive health behavior change through the power of science and hip hop music, which recently launched Community Immunity: A Rap Anthology about Vaccines.

Both Williams and Lantigua have made improving public health for residents of Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood an integral part of their work at Columbia and in the community.

“This Pop-Up site is the culmination of our efforts to listen to local community leaders and address the need to increase access to the vaccine in the neighborhoods surrounding our university,” says Lantigua, professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. “I am optimistic that this vaccination site will help break down some of the barriers that Harlem residents have faced in getting vaccinated against COVID in their community.

Lantigua also expects the vaccination site to help advance the university’s efforts to fight the pandemic across all neighborhoods in New York City. The success of the past weekend is a good indicator that he’s right. The site provided 500 vaccines to residents as young as 16 and as old as 90. Many of whom were recent immigrants who were guided through the process by multiple Columbia volunteers who spoke Spanish and French.

“I was born and raised in Harlem and I found out about Columbia’s Vaccine Pop Up from my neighbor. It felt like a blessing because so many people in my community and family continue to die and get very sick from COVID,” said Victor Hernandez, a Harlem resident who was vaccinated at The Forum on Sunday. “My parents are elderly, and I’ve been so worried about exposing them to this horrible virus. Thank you, Columbia!”

Local elected officials, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, New York State Assembly Member Danny O’Donnell, and City Councilman Mark Levine joined forces with the university and New York-Presbyterian to support the program.

“Community-based sites are highly effective in distributing vaccines to New Yorkers,” said O’Donnell. “I am thrilled that Columbia University is hosting this pop-up vaccine site on its campus and thank all the community and government partners who helped make this possible. This site will fill an overwhelming community need and bring us closer to ensuring that every New Yorker is protected from the ongoing pandemic.”

For the past several months, local elected officials have been sounding the alarm that Harlem and Northern Manhattan had very few vaccination sites near the homes of their constituents.

“We have seen the power of local vaccination sites in trusted venues across the city to significantly increase vaccination rates in underserved areas,” said City Council Health Committee Chair Mark Levine. “The pop-up site at Columbia University will reach our neighbors that have had trouble getting appointments. It will also get shots to homeless New Yorkers and residents of local shelters who are an important target of NYC’s vaccination efforts. This is a huge step for getting the community vaccinated. We need this everywhere.”