The Community Can Deliver A Better COVID-19 Message Than Health Officials

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The missteps in the COVID-19 vaccine distribution were predictable.

How could anyone expect better from a broken health care system riddled with barriers for people of color due to deeply rooted structural racism and bias?

For nearly a year, it’s been widely reported how the pandemic is disproportionately affecting Black and Brown communities across the country. Although Hispanics-Latinos make up a small fraction of the U.S. population, they account for an unfairly large proportion of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

In Chicago, the Hispanic-Latino community is being affected by COVID-19 more than any other group, with more than 85,000 confirmed cases and in excess of 1,600 deaths.

As the disease has unfolded, the Hispanic-Latino community has been put more at risk because many live in multi-generational homes with limited space; many are essential workers in businesses with a higher likelihood of being exposed; and many experience unequal treatment in the health care system.

So, it should not have been a surprise that, when the vaccine was finally made available, Hispanics-Latinos were once again left out. And while the federal government provided guidance on which groups to prioritize for vaccination, it left it up to the states to determine who got to the front of the line.

Chicago’s first pass reflected what was happening across the country: prioritizing doses for senior citizens, but at the expense of distributing the vaccine equitably. A much higher percentage of the city’s white population is 65 or older when compared to the Hispanic-Latino population, which skews younger.

When the city’s vaccination campaign began in December, Chicago health officials estimated about 53 percent of people being inoculated were white, compared to only 17 percent Hispanic-Latino.

In response to these inequities in vaccination rates, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Department of Public Health launched the Protect Chicago Plus plan at the end of January. The initiative aims to serve neighborhoods most negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as determined by the city’s COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Index.

But while that strategy did well in finally including communities of color, it once again fell short in actually reaching them.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last month finds there’s vaccine hesitancy among vulnerable communities, most notably among Hispanics-Latinos, who worry about how quickly the vaccine was developed, and what unknown long-term effects it may have.

Other barriers to getting the COVID-19 vaccine are a lack of knowledge, government websites without Spanish language instructions, general difficulty getting appointments and, in some cases, fear of immigration enforcement. When Hispanics-Latinos get over this hesitancy, they still cannot find doses at community clinics or pharmacies.

The missing ingredient in the Protect Chicago Plus community outreach strategy? Including the community in the decision-making.

One success story comes from late February, when approximately 1,000 residents of Little Village received shots at a pop-up vaccination site organized by Mi Villita Neighbors.

The initiative sought to accommodate people who can’t make an appointment because they don’t have access to the internet, a known problem given the issues raised by remote learning last year within the nation’s public schools. Most of the people served were walk-ups since, given existing disparities, thousands of Hispanics-Latinos don’t own vehicles and thus cannot access drive-thru sites.

It’s well known Hispanic’s-Latino’s have been historically hesitant getting flu vaccinations because of language and cultural misconceptions. Why then wasn’t providing a Spanish-language public education campaign a priority for the City in the rollout of the more critical COVID-19 vaccine?

Esperanza Health Centers, one of the community clinics leading mass vaccinations in the Southwest Side, ensures many of their staff are bilingual in order to inform and educate people whose first language is Spanish.

Representation matters because it puts people at ease. It is especially important for communities that might feel marginalized in the vaccine process.

Dr. Marina Del Rios, a UIC emergency room doctor and member of Illinois Unidos, was the first person in Chicago to be vaccinated. An early critic of the vaccine distribution plan, Del Rios said she felt it was important to lead by example. She shared with me that patients become more comfortable in getting the vaccine when a person of authority who looks like them takes the first step.

It’s encouraging there’s a policy shift happening under President Joe Biden that’s a stark difference from the previous administration in terms of being inclusive of undocumented immigrants in the nation’s COVID-19 vaccine plan. But after four years of virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric, mistrust of the government unfortunately lingers.

Building community partnerships is key to engaging the community. Government, at the national, state, or local levels, cannot solve the coronavirus crisis alone.

It is critical to leverage trusted neighborhood organizations — such as Mi Villita Neighbors, which set up vaccination sites in familiar public spaces such as churches and schools where members of the community are comfortable.

Long before the pandemic, widespread disparities in health care by race and ethnicity exposed symptoms of deeper inequity and discrimination across our society. COVID-19 exacerbated these disparities in the Hispanic-Latino and other marginalized communities.

COVID vaccines must be more than a tool to fight a public health crisis. They must also be a tool to rebalance society’s responsibilities toward all its people, in every community. In that light, they must not be administered under the standard operating procedures of a top-down system that has historically failed at-risk communities.

The COVID-19 opportunity is in working toward health equity with inclusivity and transparency. We need to take a bottom-up approach to empowering the community, so that they take the lead on their own in implementing equitable vaccine programs, collecting data, educating about prevention, and promoting good health.

Anything less is second-class treatment continuing to bolster the already disparaging disparity of COVID-19 cases and deaths the Hispanic-Latino community is suffering.


Hugo Balta is owner of Latino News Network. He also is a former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.