Robert Gehrke: Utah must learn from its mistakes and focus vaccine efforts on minority communities

Back in the spring and well into 2020, the coronavirus was taking a dramatically disproportionate toll on Utah’s racial and ethnic minority communities.

In some weeks, more than half of the new cases were detected in the Hispanic and Latino community, even though they make up about 14% of the state’s population. In June, a Latino Utahn was seven times as likely to contract the virus as a white resident, while Pacific Islander and Black residents were five times and three times more likely to get the virus.

The reasons were not a mystery. These Utahns were more likely to work in essential services, often lived in multi-generational homes and had less access to health care. And they paid a terrible price.

Utah health officials were slow to react, but through targeted outreach efforts, the rates have been brought down, at least closer to their proportion of the population.

Now a new disparity is showing up in the data. While we celebrate the surging vaccinations, Utah’s minority communities have once again been left behind.

Of those vaccinated (and whose race we know), under 5% are Hispanic or Latino, though that group makes up 13% of Utah’s adults, while 1% are Pacific Islander (1.4% of the adult population) and 0.6% are Black (1.8%). That is the available data, and we don’t have race data on 30% of those vaccinated so far.

Nearly 87% of those vaccinated have been white, a group that comprises nearly 80% of Utah’s population.

For now, I’m willing to give health officials a break. The data is certainly skewed because the state prioritized health care workers and nursing home residents first, groups that are disproportionately white.

But as we expand the population eligible to be vaccinated, it’s critical that the state reaches these underserved communities and recognizes the considerable obstacles these Utahns face — language barriers, online registration that disadvantages seniors and those without internet access, and a fundamental mistrust of government.

“What we have seen is the intentions are good, but not necessarily the actions,” Yehemy Zavala Orozco a program director at the advocacy group Comunidades Unidas told me. “The white population has been the one getting the vaccine and communities of color have not been able to receive it and people who do not know how to utilize technology have been prevented in getting [it].”

Comunidades Unidas was founded more than two decades ago, among its goals to improve access to health care in the Latino community. Currently, the group has more than 200 community health care workers — “promotoras de salud” — across the state working specifically on COVID outreach. Not only are they Spanish speakers, but they are trusted messengers.

Recognizing the crucial role those community health care workers would play, the state included them in the first phase of vaccinations — initially they were planned to be in the third wave.

Finding trusted voices has been key to the state’s outreach efforts, said Juan Becerra, communications lead for the COVID-19 multicultural advisory committee. That has focused largely on incorporating religious leaders and community groups, but also Spanish-speaking media, medical professionals and business groups to convey that the vaccine is safe and effective and to combat misinformation.

“There is an historic basis by which ethnic communities don’t trust vaccines,” said Byron Russell, co-chair of the Utah Multicultural Commission. “I think it really is something that needs to be raised by voices that are trusted. … Maybe it’s your library or church or pastor or bishop, people you have entrusted your life with, in some respects.”

Members of the National Guard have been brought in to translate coronavirus and vaccination information into other languages, Becerra said, and the state Health Department publishes a weekly newsletter focused on minority communities and posts videos to a Youtube channel.

Becerra said the state also learned that underrepresented communities often won’t go to a website, but they will utilize a hotline, so the state is operating a phone line — 1-800-456-7707— equipped to provide information, assist in filling out forms and setting appointments for clients in more than 100 languages.

These steps are encouraging. More encouraging is the fact that the state recognizes the need and the importance of reaching every segment of our community.

If the goal of vaccination is to get us all back to normal, that can’t happen if a large segment is left out. Or, as Russell put it: “We’re not all safe until all of us are safe.”

That’s going to take continued focus, especially on smaller, rural health departments, ill-equipped to accommodate minority communities, Orozco said, and it will take an epidemiologist focused on tracking data specific to those communities.

“It’s going to continue to be a struggle,” she said, and that’s true, but it’s a struggle that we have to get right, for everyone’s good.