“Hi, I’m Jill,” said Biden, as Harouna did a double take.
“They told us Michelle Obama was coming,” Harouna said later, in an interview. “That’s what I heard. So, she’s not coming?”
Alas, no. This was a one-first-lady-only kind of day.
“Oh, okay!” Harouna said. “Well, it’s nice to meet Jill Biden. She has very nice soft hands.”
Her son Lazarus, 12, enjoyed meeting the first lady, but said, “It didn’t mean much, to be honest.” And he didn’t recognize Fauci. “Who? Who’s that?” Lazarus said after meeting him. “I’ve never seen him before in my life.”
Fauci and the first lady had come to Harlem as part of the administration’s push to get 70 percent of U.S. adults to get at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine by July 4 — an aggressive goal that has been imperiled by falling daily vaccination rates. While a visit to a Harlem landmark is hardly the stuff of controversy, the fervor of vaccine skeptics and people who resent Fauci on behalf of former president Donald Trump made the pro-vaccination event far more politically fraught than Jill Biden’s typical work on cancer or with military families. This was the first lady’s second visit to a vaccination site with Fauci — who, though trusted by many Americans, has over the past year become a lightning rod for criticism of covid safety protocols.
As Biden and Fauci exited the church following their 40-minute visit, a group of around 75 protesters, some with bullhorns, had gathered on West 138th Street shouting, “Fire Fauci” and “Freedom over fear.” They held signs that read, “Fauci = Criminal,” “All test animals died. Don’t rush to be next” and “No masks, no vaccines, no fluoride!”
Biden’s presence might not make much of a difference among vaccine-hesitant communities in, say, Wyoming, but in theory her advocacy might have a meaningful effect in this New York City neighborhood whose voters supported her husband. According to data from the city’s health department, vaccination rates are lowest in communities of color, with 29 percent of Black New Yorkers and 37 percent of Hispanics/Latinos having received at least one shot, compared with 45 percent of White New Yorkers. Harlem is a heavily Black and Hispanic neighborhood, and vaccination rates here hover between 39 and 46 percent, while the average across Manhattan is 64 percent.
Vaccine hesitancy in the Black and Latino communities is partly caused by anti-vaccine disinformation that has targeted them and “is quite rooted in historical reality,” Alexandre White, an expert in history of epidemic response at Johns Hopkins University, told The Washington Post in November. That trust gap has been built through everything from the government-run Tuskegee Experiment, in which Black men were falsely told that they were receiving care for their syphilis, to the well-documented gaps in Black maternal health. The way that covid disproportionately affected Black and Latino communities may have, perversely, increased their distrust in the government and nervousness about getting a vaccine.
“It’s a big stew of mistrust,” said Linda Thompson, leader of Abyssinian’s health ministry, who often hears from people in Harlem who are afraid of needles, afraid of how the vaccine will affect their underlying health condition, or afraid that the government does not have their best interests at heart. But, she says: “Dr. Fauci getting on TV and talking in common-sense language has really helped. When I’m talking to people in the community they say, ‘Well, Dr. Fauci said . . . ’ ”
Biden and Fauci had chosen to visit Abyssinian, the famous Black church where Bill and Hillary Clinton had attended the memorial service for actor Cicely Tyson in February, to highlight the importance of Black faith leaders in the vaccination effort. According to the Rev. Calvin Butts, the church has vaccinated 11,000 people to date.
“People in this community trust this church, and trust the people in the church,” Biden said, and so the administration is counting on the faith community to “reach out to the congregation or block to say, ‘Come forward and be vaccinated.’ ”
“We’re going to end this outbreak,” said Fauci, adding that “the vehicle to ending it is vaccination, and that’s what’s going on right here.”
One of the administration’s goals is to spread the word that every American over the age of 12 is now eligible for a shot. During her visit, Biden greeted a 14-year-old boy, who was getting ready to get his first shot.
“You’re 14, so you’re exactly who we’re going for,” Biden told the boy, who declined to give his name. “We definitely want [everyone] 12 and over to get vaccinated.”
She asked the boy if he wanted to hold her hand; he shook his head no, and the room filled with laughter.
Kera Beckles, 14, said she’d be bragging about her experience to her friends and siblings for a while. “I’d be like, ‘Oh I just happened to, like, get the vaccination while the first lady was here.’ Just solid flex, like, ‘Mmm-hmmm.’ ”
It wasn’t just teenagers queuing up for their shot. Annette Gausney, 92, showed up in a sparkly sea-green mask and sparkly purple dress. Gausney knew the first lady was going to be there, but that wasn’t the reason for the fabulous outfit. “It’s Sunday, so Sunday best,” said her grandson, Shareif Jones, 24. “She always dresses up on Sundays.”
Jones, who works at the nonprofit organization United Way of New York City and is helping to combat vaccine hesitancy, was the one who’d persuaded his grandmother to come. It hadn’t been easy convincing “an elderly Black woman in America” that the government was working in her interest, he said. “I understand where she’s coming from, though,” he said, “[given] what she’s been through growing up.”
Gausney said she just had been waiting to see how the vaccine rollout went before she took the risk. “I said, ‘Ninety-two, no sense in me going running, getting into something.’ And everything seems to be turning out all right, so I decided to come.”
“Thank you for setting an example,” Biden told Gausney when she reached her vaccination booth.
Gausney told The Post she thought Biden was “sweet,” adding, “you know, it’s pleasant when people are pleasant and she certainly was.”
When it comes to meeting the president’s 70 percent vaccination goal, the biggest movers around here may be the faith leaders who, according to Thompson, spent the pandemic passing out water, hand sanitizer and 150,000 face masks. Now, those same faith leaders are putting fliers in laundromats, hair salons and barber shops to encourage people to come in for vaccinations. Abyssinian is one of 50 churches in predominantly Black communities in five cities running vaccination events through Choose Healthy Life, an organization founded during the pandemic to address the health disparities that had led to people of color dying at such high rates. One of Abyssinian’s first initiatives was to invite congregations from other churches to gather with their pastors while getting vaccinated.
“Many church members had not been able to see each other for a year,” Thompson said. “It was wonderful for us to be able to provide that comfort for other churches, because we’re part of the same big family.”
Jill Biden may not have the same star appeal as Michelle Obama. Not everybody getting vaccinated in Harlem needs the first lady to hold their hand. But her presence did make an impression on Thompson — because it’s the same compassionate, caring impression she wants people to get when they meet health ministers at the church.
“Her energy was quite amazing. She is so warm and she seemed interested in what I had to say,” she said. “She looked directly in my eyes, and her blue eyes say, ‘Hello.’ ”