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Putting a positive face on COVID-19 vaccination for Latinos

When Hartford HealthCare invited Yolanda Negron to its new COVID-19 clinic at Foxwoods Casino on March 8 to receive her first dose of a vaccine and the first administered at the mega-site, the Willimantic resident readily agreed.

Negron, a coronavirus survivor, was chosen to be featured at an event that would receive widespread media coverage, she said, because of her long relationship and support of Windham Hospital – Hartford HealthCare’s partner in her hometown.

Moreover, Negron is well-known as a respected leader and a highly visible member of the eastern Connecticut city’s large Hispanic-Latino community.

“They wanted me to reach out to the Latino community to encourage Latinos to get vaccinated,” said Negron who is of Puerto Rican heritage.

As the new vaccines are widely distributed, people of color, who are highly vulnerable and more likely to have lower incomes, are vaccinated at a much lower rate than whites – a vaccine inequity that the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called “sinful.”

Or as Ken Barela, chief executive officer at the Hispanic Health Council, has stated, “Latino and Black residents have suffered the highest coronavirus infection rates, but are not receiving the vaccine as much as white people.”

There are several reasons Hispanics- Latinos have been “have nots” concerning the vaccination dispersal and experienced a high level of vulnerability to the pandemic.

Many Hispanics-Latinos, particularly in low-income areas, have not been regular medical system users due to mistrust, the cost and lack of insurance, and cultural norms. Also, they have not been able to get to vaccination sites due to a lack of transportation. They have not accessed the state’s online vaccine appointment system because they do not have computers or reliable Internet access.

During the early weeks of the vaccine program, Hispanics also have been the most reluctant to receive “emergency vaccines developed at “warp speed.” What has emerged from focus groups and other outreach initiatives to this growing population is a “wait and see” attitude: “I do not want to be at the front of the line; let the politicians get their shots first.”

The exposure given to the vaccination of Negron and other prominent people is seen to humanize Hispanics-Latinos’ process. The underlying concept is that if people hesitant to be vaccinated see someone who looks like them and understands their culture and language receive the vaccine, they will be likely to get their shots.

Negron would be among the thousands vaccinated March 8 across Connecticut. The vaccine is being administered at mega-sites such as the Foxwoods clinic, which can handle 1,000 vaccinations per day, and at hospitals, senior centers, and churches. Besides, the pharmacies at CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart increasingly have been dispensing doses of the vaccines and several Stop and Shop pharmacies are expected to add this service.

However, vaccine inequity has remained evident. In Connecticut, as of March 15, 31.7 percent of the population age 16 and up had received at least one vaccine dose. Of those that the state identified as white, this figure was 32.3 percent. However, only 13.5 percent of those identified as Hispanics (compared to 8.5 percent a week earlier), 16.7  percent of Blacks, 16.9 percent of Asian and Pacific Islanders, and 9.5  percent of multi-racial residents had been vaccinated.

Meanwhile, people of color, especially Hispanics-Latinos, have experienced twice the coronavirus death rate than the general population when age adjustments are included, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Age-adjusted figures have been underscored, DPH  said,  because the median age among the non-Hispanic white population is 47 years. Still, it is 34 years among non-Hispanic Blacks and 29 years among Hispanics. Most non-Hispanic white residents who died were over 75 years of age. In contrast, Hispanic residents who died tend to be younger than 75 years of age, resulting in higher age-adjusted rates.

The state has made eliminating vaccine inequality a priority and has recognized that removing vaccine hesitancy and improving access to the vaccine programs has been essential in building a pathway to end the year-old health crisis which has been especially cruel to the state’s most vulnerable and economically stressed populations and in the case of Hispanics-Latinos, the largest minority group.

Several statewide organizations such as Hispanic Health Center, Hartford HealthCare, and the United Way of Connecticut, have become partners, dedicating staff and resources to this endeavor.

Help also is coming from more localized campaigns throughout the state, especially in vulnerable communities. For example, a recent pop-up clinic at a Stamford church vaccinated 300 migrants Vaccinate/Vacúnate New Haven has launched a door-to-door campaign organized by Kica Matos to get thousands of residents of the city’s heavily minority and lower-income Fair Haven section vaccinated.

The state also has been enhancing access to information about COVID-19 and helping people of all races set up vaccination appointments online and through the CT Vaccinate Assist Line. This multilingual phone service, which handles thousands of calls each week, is provided through a partnership between the United Way of Connecticut and the state Department of Public Health.

“We are ready to serve anyone who needs help,” said Lisa Tepper Bates, president of United Way of Connecticut. The statewide organization has become “very much involved in lots of efforts” with its community partners to assist the vaccine program, she said.

The state recently identified 50 ZIP code areas, many with largely marginalized populations, that have a high “social vulnerability index,” meaning they generally have high poverty rates, little transportation access and crowded living arrangements, priority areas.

Economic and cultural issues play a crucial role in the infection/vaccination disparity, especially in lower-income communities, explained Yanil Teron, executive director of the Center for Latino Progress in Hartford.

“Hispanics are overly represented in substandard housing which provides ample opportunities for contracting the virus,” Teron said.

Another factor is that Hispanics-Latinos take care of the elderly at home, Teron said, “It is seen as a badge of honor to be there for your parents until the end.” Also, fewer Hispanics are in nursing homes,” she said, noting that the “assisted living facilities are pricey.” 

A key component of vaccination programs, Barela said, must be more willing to access vulnerable and low-income communities and to recognize that “one size does not fit all.”

The Hispanic Health Council recently held a local vaccination program at its Main Street Hartford headquarters. Hartford Hospital provided the staff and the vaccinators and handled some of the administrative work. HHC, which serves 20,000 people across the state, gathered the recipients, drawing on its affinity with the local Latino community.

The Hispanic Health Council has developed a high level of trust among the people it serves by utilizing dozens of outreach staffers who can work with them on a personal level and know the community.

Similarly, the United Way of Connecticut, headquartered in Rocky Hill and operates the 2-1-1 hotline for the state, has been working with the state and regional United Ways to facilitate “close to the ground” efforts, Bates said. 

The United Way of North Central Connecticut is spearheading a vaccination program in Hartford’s north end, a heavily low-income minority area that five years ago was designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Urban Development as a high priority “Promise Zone” during a visit to Connecticut by then-Secretary Julián Castro.

Gina Federico is the North Hartford Triple Aim Collaborative director, which has added the need for vaccinations to its health, flu, and COVID-19 awareness campaigns.

“We are part of a multi-sector coalition to improve health in North Hartford,” Federico said. “Our priority is to create an easy way for people to understand and go get their flu shots and now the COVID-19 vaccine.”

The United Way team is taking an “our community” approach that involves coordinating many folks to connect” with people, ” Frederico said.

The collaborative initiative has staged community clinics with local partners such as local churches and is working with service providers such as the Salvation Army along with the city of Hartford’s health department. In addition, Frederico said, the North Hartford program is going to bodegas and supermarkets to communicate the need for the vaccinations.

Both Barela of the HHC and Frederico has stressed the need for helping people from the lower-income communities deal with one of the biggest challenges faced by all Connecticut residents, scheduling appointments for vaccine shots.

Many immigrants are not comfortable with using the Vaccine Administration management System, the state’s online enrollment program, Frederico said.

“You have to get people out there,” Barela said. Not everyone has a computer or reliable Internet access, he said.

The United Way is being helped by The Latino Way, a Hispanic marketing agency, to set up focus groups and to develop a bilingual campaign for radio, television, cable, and print media.

Among the findings The Latino Way gleaned from focus groups and from interviews at the clinics held at the Yard Goats stadium in Hartford, people prefer to go to local clinics rather than a big hospital.

They are loyal to these clinics, she said, because they know the people there and know that they understand their language and culture, said Maria Lino, a principal in the agency.

As for Negron’s vaccination at Foxwoods, this ceremony and positive comments would reach a wide audience through various media, including television and Hartford HealthCare’s website.

“I had no idea that it would be such a huge press conference,” she said.

Her fame, however, would not be brief. A couple of days later a photo of her giving the thumbs as she received her shot would be transmitted globally as part of the influential Washington Post’s coverage of President Biden’s landmark speech on the anniversary of the pandemic.

“I do hope my comments help encourage Latinos to get vaccinated, including those who are undocumented,” Negron said. “You do not need to be a citizen and they do not care if you are or not.”

A few days after Negron and a friend who drove her to Foxwoods were vaccinated both said the injection site felt “a little warm” until they arrived back at Willimantic and then it was gone.

“Neither of us had soreness of the arm, aches or anything,” she said.

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