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Hesitancy isn’t the only barrier to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but the hurdles in Utah’s Latino communities are higher than most.
Nearly 10 months after Utah officials began distributing vaccines to the public, health experts say a combination of factors contribute to why Utah Latinos lag behind other ethnic groups when it comes to vaccination rates, including Spanish-language misinformation online and lack of accessibility to shots.
Latinos account for nearly 14% of the state population, but make up about 18% of the state’s reported COVID-19 cases, figures from the Utah Department of Health show. Yet Latinos are less likely than other ethnic groups to be fully vaccinated.
Overall, Latinos account for 11.4% of the state’s vaccinated population. About 50% of Latinos in Utah are fully vaccinated, state data shows. Compared to 53% of Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders, 55.3% of Blacks, 58.9% of non-Hispanic whites, 64.2% of American Indians/Alaska Natives, and 70.1% of Asian Americans who are fully vaccinated, Latinos trail behind.
“It’s still complicated to get (vaccine) appointments online,” said Dr. Jose Rodriguez, associate vice president for equity diversity and inclusion for University of Utah Health.
In order to close that gap, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said it’s vital to meet Utahns where they’re at.
“What I really think is a barrier for people is just access,” Romero said. “You know, making sure that we have access to the right locations for people and working with their work schedules.”
About 1 in 4 of Latinos in Utah do not have health insurance, a barrier that makes it more difficult to receive preventative care or have access to a doctor and accurate health information. The uninsured rate is also often lower for undocumented immigrants.
“Access to services is definitely one issue,” said Edwin Espinel, a Spanish-speaking public information officer at the Utah Department of Health.
For many Latino workers getting a vaccine means taking time off work or missing out on the a day’s worth of wages, according to Espinel. Transportation to a vaccine site can also be a barrier, he added.
It’s why the state agencies partnered with Rancho Markets, a Utah chain of grocery stores catered toward Latino shoppers, across the state to conduct vaccine clinics in their parking lots, according to Claudia Loayza, communications and community engagement coordinator for the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs.
“Something that we’ve consistently made kind of our goal and mantra is to meet people where they are,” Loayza said. “There are nurses on site and health workers on site that can help answer questions, and translators (and) interpreters that can help make sure that community members have their questions answered and that they feel informed in making their decisions.”
Since launching in May, the vaccine clinics, also referred to as “Fiesta Clinics” at Rancho Markets have helped vaccinate over 1,000 people. The vaccine events have been celebratory in nature in order to make them less intimidating, mirroring vaccine clinics in Mexico City that have featured music, dancing and masked wrestlers. Some pop-up clinics have also included incentives like gift cards for groceries.
At the clinics, no questions are asked about a person’s insurance or immigration status, according to Loayza.
Loayza added that the Utah Department of Multicultural Affairs has partnered with Spanish-media outlets and the Utah Department of Health to spread the word about clinics and accurate information about vaccines.
Through United Way of Salt Lake City, Espinel said some Utahns can call 211 to request a free Lyft ride to a vaccine appointment. The Utah Transit Authority is also providing free rides for people traveling to vaccine appointments until June 30, 2022.
A report by civil rights group Avaaz reported that Spanish-speaking users on Facebook, now known as Meta, may be at greater risk of misinformation exposure on the platform amid the pandemic.
Researchers found that the social media platform had not issued warnings on 70% of Spanish-language content considered misinformation, compared to 29% of its English-language misinformation. One example was a Spanish-language social media post that instructed users to gargle water, salt and vinegar in order to get rid of the virus. The post did not include a warning about misinformation and was shared over 30,000 times on Facebook.
Romero believes that misinformation online can hold people back from getting vaccinated.
“There’s just so many resources where people get their information and a lot of people don’t do fact checks because they don’t have time,” Romero said. “So sometimes they go by word of mouth, or sometimes they go off of an article somebody sent them.”
Convincing loved ones to get their shots is an issue the U.’s Rodriguez has experience first hand.
For several months, Rodriguez said he tried to convince his father and mother to get incolulated without any success. The doctor said when his 83-year-old father eventually contracted the virus in August, he was hospitalized. Rodriguez rushed to Florida, but by the time he arrived his father struggled to breathe and died later that day.
“The worst thing that has ever happened to me was watch my father die of suffocation,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. It was horrifying and painful.”
Rodriguez said his father’s death finally convinced his mother to roll up her sleeve.
The state has also translated its official COVID-19 website into Spanish, and it is frequently updated with the most current information, according to Espinel.
“But still it’s coming from the government and sometimes individuals in our communities may not be trusting of the government because of historical issues,” he said.
Medical mistrust and immigration fears
In the early- to mid-1900s, thousands of men and women in the U.S. were forcibly sterilized under eugenics laws, many were disproportionately low-income, people of color.
And U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement received scrutiny in 2020 after it was reported by The New York Times that women allegedly received involuntary hysterectomies while detained at an immigration detention facility in Georgia.
That history, according to Rodriguez, is not forgotten among communities of color.
“Those things have a long life in cultural lore and so there’s mistrust that health systems have earned by mistreating patients,” he said. “Mistrust lingers.”
Furthermore, researchers say a Trump-era policy known as the “public charge” rule has dissuaded Latino communities from receiving medical attention in fear that it will impact their pathway to citizenship. The policy “sought to disqualify immigrants who used social programs like Medicaid from obtaining legal residency in the U.S.,” according to the Latino Politics & Policy Initiative at UCLA. Despite President Joe Biden overturning the policy last year, its “chilling effects” are still felt today.
About 94,000 undocumented immigrants live in Utah, the Pew Research Center estimates. The majority of the state’s undocumented residents are from Mexico.
“Our family members, our friends, our community needs to know that we care about them,” Rodriguez said. “That’s why we talk about vaccines. That’s why we wear masks when we’re around them and that’s why we’re not shaking hands and we’re keeping physical distance because we want to protect each other. The time will come when we don’t need to, but unfortunately that day isn’t today.”