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First Baptist Church of Riverhead partners with Stony Brook Medicine at pop-up vaccine site

When the phone rang at First Baptist Church of Riverhead with different agencies gauging the church’s interest in becoming a pop-up vaccination site, the response was a resounding yes.

The Rev. Cynthia Liggon, the assistant pastor at the church on Northville Turnpike, said four different agencies had contacted the church, which has a history of partnering with different health organizations dating back many years. 

“That’s a natural fit for us,” she said, adding that the church’s goal is to do whatever is in the best interest of the community.

As the vaccine rollout continues across New York and the country, the First Baptist Church of Riverhead finally got its chance to host a pop-up site Friday in a partnership with New York State and Stony Brook Medicine. It was one of more than 120 statewide pop-up sites set up through the state so far.

Starting around 8 a.m. Friday, about 300 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were distributed at the church. Those recipients are scheduled to return for a second dose April 2.

The Rev. Liggon said the church offered an ideal space to host the pop-up since it’s large enough to accommodate different areas that Stony Brook Medicine requires. They set up areas for registration, vaccine administering and an observation area.

The doses were distributed in partnership with Sepa Mujer, an organization that aims to build self-esteem among Latina women, and the NAACP. The Rev. Liggon said the church received 150 doses, while Sepa Mujer received 50 and the NAACP received 100.

About a month or so earlier, it had been reported in some media outlets that the church would be a pop-up site, which led to a flood of calls, the Rev. Liggon said. While the state has targeted churches as pop-up locations to reach traditionally minority communities, the Rev. Liggon said the calls seeking a vaccine came from all corners of the community at a time when residents were growing increasingly frustrated about the lack of distribution.

While the church didn’t have a distribution date solidified yet at that time, the volunteers began collecting names. And when information came up about vaccine availability such as when the Riverhead Senior Center became a vaccine site, the volunteers worked the phones to get the information out, particularly to elderly people who may not have internet access.

“The stories we heard from elderly people, it was heart-wrenching,” the Rev. Liggon said.

At Friday’s vaccination distribution, about 15 church volunteers assisted for just over four hours. Some volunteers were kept busy on the phone as people kept calling hoping to get vaccinated, but everyone for that day was already on a preregistration list.

“Stony Brook came with a fantastic team of people,” the Rev. Liggon said.

She added that the people receiving the vaccine felt comfortable and safe in the church since many had been there before.

While no other dates are scheduled yet besides for the second dose on April 2, the Rev. Liggon said the church would be open to hosting again.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke Monday about the disparity the virus has leveled to minority communities, with Black and Hispanic people more likely to die.

“When it comes to the vaccine, we have to correct that injustice,” he said. “This vaccine has to be available to everyone equitably and fairly. We are going to make this vaccine available in the communities that have been hardest hit.”

He then asked faith-based church leaders to use their facilities as pop-up sites.

“We will bring the vaccine to those communities hardest hit,” he said.

The church, while closed for services, has been busy during the pandemic offering services to help feed people. Volunteers from the Butterfly Effect Project had teamed up with the Open Arms Care Center of Riverhead when the pandemic hit to distribute food and supplies to those in need. The Rev. Liggon, who’s now vaccinated, had her own bout with COVID-19 that she survived.

“I’m anxious to move on,” she said, as vaccinations bring hope of the pandemic’s eventual end.