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Advocates working to get COVID-19 vaccine to Baltimore’s hard-hit Latino community

With the pandemic hitting Baltimore’s Latino community harder than almost any other group, advocates and health care providers are pushing on many fronts to make sure these residents get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Health officials have sent a sound truck onto the streets of Latino neighborhoods in Southeast Baltimore to blast vaccine messages and dispel myths. Leaders are hiring outreach workers to talk to citizens in high-traffic spots like bus stops and grocery stores, and they are advocating for community hubs to be vaccination sites. Some state legislators are pushing for undocumented immigrants, as well as minorities who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, to get priority in vaccine distribution.

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Access to the vaccine is crucial for this group, as many are front-line workers at risk of getting the virus. While Maryland health officials lack race or ethnicity data for about 1 in 7 COVID-19 cases, Hispanic residents make up almost 19% of the cases for which it was reported. By comparison, Hispanic and Latino people together make up about 10% of Maryland’s population. So far, they make up only 3.6% of Marylanders vaccinated.

“We want to make sure that immigrants and community members aren’t falling in the shadows,” said Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, Baltimore and Central Maryland region director of CASA, an advocacy and assistance organization for immigrants and Latinos. She is pushing for CASA’s Southeast Baltimore office, in ZIP code 21224, a COVID hot spot, to become a vaccination site.

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The group’s office in Baltimore has been a cornerstone during the pandemic, where more than 200 people received flu shots, and many others participated in trials for the COVID vaccine. Through the city’s initiative to mitigate the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in the Latino community, CASA’s staff will hire six community promoters to do canvassing and door knocking, informing the public at public spaces including in Southeast Baltimore and Northwest Baltimore.

Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and the Baltimore City Health Department are leading regular vaccine outreach meetings with advocates and community groups in Baltimore like CASA and Centro SOL. The Esperanza Center, a resource center for immigrants in Baltimore, has pivoted its multilingual health hotline to answer questions about the vaccine and registration.

Like other groups, the Latino community has its own fears and mistrust of the vaccine. Immigrants and those who are undocumented worry that their personal health information will be shared with government agencies. Pregnant women are scared about the safety of the vaccine. In Maryland, 27% of Latinos are under or uninsured, and for them, there are anxieties about possible side effects of the vaccine.

“Who’s going to respond to us if the vaccine hurts us? Where are we going to go? What doctor will we see?” asked Marisol, 43, who lives in Greektown, and is uninsured and undocumented. She asked The Baltimore Sun to use only her first name because of her immigration status. Marisol had to stop her work as a hotel cleaner because she has two immune diseases and fears getting COVID-19.

Another Baltimore-area Latina resident, Nohemi, a mother of three who also is uninsured, shares fears like Marisol’s. Both still want to get the vaccine.

“I am more afraid, in truth, of getting sick than I am of getting the vaccine, because it is an ugly thing that no one desires — to be sick, without seeing their relatives and being able to say goodbye to them,” said Nohemi, 42, who has lost relatives to COVID-19. She did not want her last name published because she is undocumented.

Nohemi, a Latina mother in Baltimore, is eager to receive the vaccine for COVID-19. Physicians and advocates for the Latino community are working to increase vaccination rates in this hard-hit community. Feb 11, 2021.
Nohemi, a Latina mother in Baltimore, is eager to receive the vaccine for COVID-19. Physicians and advocates for the Latino community are working to increase vaccination rates in this hard-hit community. Feb 11, 2021. (Amy Davis)

At Centro SOL, a health and community center for Latinos and immigrants, Hopkins physician and director Dr. Kathleen Page is doing eight focus groups with low-income, Spanish-speaking immigrants and a quick survey of Bayview patients to identify barriers to vaccine access and hesitancy. She’s also been appearing on Facebook Live sessions with Pedro Palomino, a community journalist and founder of Somos Baltimore Latino, and virtual town halls with evangelical congregations in Spanish.

Page is pushing the public health message that the vaccine is safe, free and effective, and that immigration status has no impact on people being able to get the vaccine.

But she feels like she’s competing with rumors and misinformation online, even myths that the vaccine may be a way to control the population. She’s seeing the same barriers that she saw with access to COVID testing: language, navigation of the health system, the digital divide and the documents that are required.

“Even if they are in the right essential worker category, they may be working in very informal situations,” Page said. “They may not have a letter from an employer. They may not even have an ID. Getting to places can be an issue with transportation, having to make appointments ahead of time when your work is irregular can be hard.”

Page said the Maryland health department website for vaccine sign-up was poorly translated into Spanish, and there are technology barriers, as not everyone has internet access or emails to be added to waitlists. A Maryland health department spokesman said after the translation issue was recently raised, the department worked with the vendor to update the website’s Spanish information.

Many in the Latino community have not been able to stay home during the pandemic, because they earn low wages and need to work. Narvik, 31, is an essential worker in construction. He has requested a letter from his employer to get vaccinated.

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“I am the only one who works here in the house and always give my earnings to the family,” said Narvik, a Bayview resident for the past 13 years who was afraid to be identified by his full name because he is undocumented. “At work, it is very dangerous, because too many people are close together, and sometimes others don’t take care of themselves or show respect.”

Narvik, a construction worker, has needed to work during the pandemic, but that's put him more at risk for COVID-19. 02-12-2021
Narvik, a construction worker, has needed to work during the pandemic, but that's put him more at risk for COVID-19. 02-12-2021 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Some of these issues are showing up in the state legislature. In a January letter to the health department, the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus urged that undocumented immigrants and disproportionately affected racial and ethnic groups be given priority during phase two of the vaccine rollout. They also requested that vaccines be brought directly to hot spot neighborhoods and preregistration should not be required.

Acting Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader responded that the department is working on culturally appropriate outreach and committed to making sure vaccine sites are equally accessible. But the caucus is still pushing for answers to many questions, including whether a call center would be set up for vaccine appointments since many Latino residents don’t have access to computers.

Maryland state Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, who is vice chair of the General Assembly’s Latino caucus, is urging the governor to ensure that personal data collected during vaccination is not accessed by federal agencies, including ICE. She pointed to a situation that sparked distrust from the Latino community last year, when officials discovered that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was accessing the state’s database of licensed drivers, which includes records of people who are undocumented.

Advocates know they’ll need to calm the fears of Latino residents who will see the National Guard helping with large scale vaccinations. Dr. Page said public service announcements will have to be clear that the servicemen and women in uniform are not working for ICE.

Other advocates have reached out to pharmacists, as they are usually the most accessible entry point to health care for many communities of color. Last month, Veronica Cool, a Hispanic strategist and business consultant, teamed up with two pharmacy leaders for a Facebook live Q&A. One key question was whether the vaccine is as effective for people of color as it is for white people.

Cool assured them the efficacy was the same. “The vaccine and corona[virus] do not care what color you are.”

Peña-Melnyk, a Democrat who represents portions of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, has hosted 10 vaccine town halls since January in English and Spanish. And she has also been spreading the word that she got vaccinated: “I wanted to show as a Black Latina that I trust it.”

The Esperanza Center’s multilingual COVID-19 triage hotline is 667-600-2314.

Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her @HagiaStephia

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