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Vaccine Outreach Efforts Remain Just Short In Iowa's Latino Communities

Courtesy Jennifer Juárez
Jennifer Juárez, 28, received her COVID-19 vaccine on Sunday. She had been eligible for vaccination earlier, but instead signed up other people when she could find appointments. "And I kind of had the mentality, which I think like a lot of other people have, well, I'm a little bit younger, I want the people who are more vulnerable, and at risk to kind of have those vaccines quickly," Juárez said.

Jennifer Juárez logged in to her computer at 6 o’clock one evening last month. She wanted to watch a Facebook Live event with two doctors answering common questions about COVID-19 vaccines.

They answered the questions in Spanish.

“I think that those kinds of outreach projects are just really important for the community," Juárez said.

The 28-year-old emigrated from Mexico when she was six. She currently works at Lutheran Services in Iowa as a program supervisor in the mental health and intellectual disabilities sector. She said she wants to pay more attention to Latino communities because she said they need more advocacy and support.

That’s why even when she became eligible for vaccination, she decided to sign others up instead of herself when she could find openings.

“It's been more helping those people who might not have that access, either technology-wise, or because of the language barrier within my circle, and getting them the small number of appointments that I have been able to find," Juárez said.

Courtesy Jennifer Juárez
Jennifer Juárez poses for a photo after receiving a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Sunday. She went to Hy-Vee with her boyfriend. She is now trying to convince her father to get a vaccine. "He's slowly getting to be more open to it," Juárez said.

She said when she reaches out to people about vaccine appointments, she gets mixed responses.

Most times, people can’t say 'yes' quickly enough, while others, she explained, say something else: "'Well, I don't know what's in the vaccine. And I don't think I want to take it yet.' And, you know, it's just that hesitancy to go out and get it right now, because there's not a lot known about it.”

As time has passed, more groups have organized events like the Spanish question-and-answer session so Latinos in the state can find more information. And Juárez said seeing representation is helping. Especially for immigrants like her.

“We come from a government who let us down, you know? Like, the Mexican government is pretty corrupt," Juárez said. "So I think that sometimes people have that connection of: Do we really trust the government?”

The number of these events has grown in the past few months, but the questions haven’t really changed. Slowly, Juárez said the outreach has changed some people’s minds about getting vaccinated.

But the attempts haven’t quite reached everyone in the Latino community.

Mayo Neville saw the Facebook event, but she hasn’t had the time to watch it yet.

“I tried to. And even on Facebook, I try to make like, a conscious effort of liking those sort of things, because I want Facebook to show me more of those,” Neville said.

Neville is a career coach for a community college. She also liked the online event to help send it to her students' Facebook feeds.

Neville emphasized that she does believe in science. She even wears two masks in public and she’s trying to research. But she’s still hesitant to get the vaccine. She said it’s because no one has really reached out to her individually and sent her trustworthy information.

“I just would like...maybe some kind of assurance, and I know I can't get that like, one year into this whole thing. But I just want to make sure that I'm gonna be okay 20 or 30 years from now and not, like, lose a limb from this. I don't know," Neville explained.

Neville said coming from Mexico, her parents tended to lean toward home remedies, like tea and honey. So it’s going to take more from the state or local groups to make her feel more comfortable about a COVID vaccine.

Patty Ritchie, the longest serving member of the Crawford County Board of Health, said she completely understands people who feel the same way as Neville. She herself wanted to research the vaccine before eventually getting it.

"I actually was offered [the vaccine] by Crawford County, the one-time shot Johnson and Johnson. And I was ecstatic. My husband and I both got it. We're both veterans. And we did not really have any reaction to it, which was perfect," she said.

Ritchie admitted she was scared when vaccines first started being introduced in the United States because she didn't have a lot of information about it. She spoke more about her feelings in a previous IPR story.

She said it was even harder for people who either don't speak English or people like Neville's family in which culturally, vaccines weren't the norm.

"I believe that if we have things translated, if we have things available in other languages, that is going to be a step towards a fight of whatever disease that is going on, whether it be COVID, or malaria, or whatever," Ritchie explained. "I think if we have that information out there, then they're going to be able to understand it. And if we have workers that look like the people of our culture, then that's a better way of even doing it."

Courtesy Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs
Rolando Sanchez spoke on a Facebook Live event with Alejandro Comellas, both Spanish-speaking doctors from the University of Iowa. The Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs hosted the event.

Dr. Rolando Sanchez is a pulmonologist at the University of Iowa and one of the doctors who spoke on that Facebook event Neville plans to watch.

In an interview for a recent Iowa Public Radio story, he said Spanish-speaking doctors are helping as much as they can.

“It's a work in progress but I think we're, day by day, hopefully, increasing the awareness in the community and hopefully taking down the barriers that they feel they have that are preventing them to come and vaccinate themselves,” Sanchez said.

And even though he said Iowa is slowly getting better at communicating with Latinos about the vaccine, others said there’s still more to do. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports only 10 percent of Hispanic people in Iowa have received a COVID vaccine.

In her own experience signing people up for vaccine appointments, Juárez guessed that’s not all due to general hesitancy.

“What we could be doing also is just making sure that those vaccination clinics are also accessible to the Latino communities," she said. "Or maybe doing a little bit more outreach to places where more Latinos tend to attend.”

Overall, Juárez said the state gets a C- for vaccine outreach. But she did say there’s time to improve.

She just got her vaccine Sunday.

IPR's health reporter Natalie Krebs contributed to this report.

Kassidy Arena is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines