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Fear, mistrust and language all barriers to getting more Hispanics vaccinated in N.C.
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Fear, mistrust and language all barriers to getting more Hispanics vaccinated in N.C.

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Guilford County Mass Vaccination Site (copy)

Air Force medical technician Jade Loftus gives a COVID-19 vaccination to Claude Morehead on March 10, the first full day of operations at the mass vaccination site at Four Seasons Town Centre. Activists have found that many Latinos are uncomfortable with or unable to travel to large sites like the Greensboro clinic.

DURHAM — When local Latino activists knocked on Lidio Membreño’s door on a sunny March afternoon in a trailer park, he was surprised to learn he was eligible to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

That’s because it was the first time that anyone had told him anything substantial about the vaccine in Spanish and how he and his family could receive it.

“I do think the vaccine is good, and that it’s for the good of all,” he said in Spanish. But, he said, no one had ever given him any information on the vaccine, much less in his native language, so he didn’t know much about it.

Across North Carolina, Latinos haven’t been as informed about the vaccine as others have even though they are often frontline essential workers — and the numbers reflect it.

In addition to the language barrier, experts say that factors such as lack of trust in governmental institutions, lack of information about how to sign up for a shot and the same lack of access to medical care that played a factor in the pandemic’s disparate impact on Latinos all make it more difficult for them to find the vaccine.

Dr. Edith Nieves Lopez, a Durham pediatrician, has helped recruit Hispanic people for vaccine events around the city. Many people who are seeking the shot don’t have an email address or an electronic medical record, Nieves Lopez said, and it is frustrating to be put on hold while the person on the other end of the line finds a person who speaks Spanish.

And in particular, when Latinos who are immigrants are making appointments, Nieves Lopez said: “They want to get vaccinated, but they want to get vaccinated in places there’s trust that’s been established.”

Yazmin Garcia Rico, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Service’s director of Latinx and Hispanic policy and strategy, said that while it is important to work to overcome language barriers and build trust in the vaccine, she is hopeful that frontline essential workers becoming eligible will help increase the proportion.

Vaccination information is private and confidential, Garcia Rico said, and will not be shared with immigration authorities for any reason. Those who receive the shot will not be required to produce identification.

In a survey done by advocacy group Siembra NC, organizer Reyna Gutiérrez said she asked 16 people outside of a Latino grocery store about the vaccine. None knew details on how to get vaccinated. Many thought they would be charged for doing so, she said.

Of 836 Hispanic people surveyed, 64% said they’re interested in getting vaccinated but 73% said they don’t know how to sign up to be vaccinated. Another key finding of the Siembra survey was that 52% of respondents wanted to make their vaccine appointment over the phone, while only 19% preferred the internet.

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Kelly Morales, Siembra NC’s executive director, said part of that finding was due to older people who are more comfortable with the phone being the first to become eligible.

“There’s also a reality around just the ease of being able to call on your break versus having to navigate trying to find a link and trying to figure out what it says in English,” Morales said.

Many Latinos are immigrants who speak little to no English and are wary of the government officials often involved in the vaccination effort. They’re uncomfortable with or unable to travel to large sites like the mass vaccination clinic at Four Seasons Town Centre in Greensboro.

La Semilla, a Hispanic Methodist church and activist group based in Durham, sends staff to the Greensboro clinic to offer a sense of familiarity.

The Rev. Edgar Vergara Millán, La Semilla’s pastor, said: “It’s quite a thing — seeing the place full of soldiers and the place full of people wearing government-issued attire might seem intimidating for some members of the immigrant community, right? So it helps having community members there to welcome them and give them the support they need.”

Garcia Rico, the state health official, is hopeful that the vaccine coming to the state through the Greensboro site will provide a boost in other ways. For instance, Alamance County has been selected as a “spoke site” of that hub, offering enough vaccine for 7,200 people starting last week and focusing specifically on the area’s Hispanic community.

“We have high goals of making sure the vaccines go to historically marginalized populations, but specifically to the Latinx community,” Garcia Rico said.

Siembra NC activists going door-to-door in Latino neighborhoods directly share vaccine information as part of a multi-county grassroots education campaign. In-person engagement in Spanish is how Siembra is seeking to educate people and dispel myths and misinformation.

Victor Jiménez recently received his second shot of the vaccine. He had asked about it every time he went to Walmart to pick up his blood pressure medicine. Each time, the answer was the same: Not yet.

“Ever since this illness began spreading I wanted to get a vaccination, but it wasn’t available,” Jimenez said in Spanish through a translator.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, someone called Jimenez to offer him a shot at La Semilla’s first clinic in Garner.

Without that phone call, Jiménez said: “Perhaps I would have found one, perhaps not.”

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