Calif. medical workers fight to bridge the Latino COVID-19 vaccination gap

·5 min read
COVID-19 updates. View the latest news.
COVID-19 updates. View the latest news.

LOS ANGELES — Latino health care workers in California’s predominantly Latino neighborhoods are fighting to bridge the COVID-19 vaccination gap in their community.

“If we do not learn right now and create better health care for our communities, and if we do not address the social determinants of health, equity and equality, this thing will happen again and again,” Dr. Ilan Shapiro, a medical director at AltaMed, based in Orange County, told Yahoo News.

According to the Los Angeles Department of Health, nearly 68 percent of the county’s eligible residents are fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, the number of fully vaccinated Latinos countywide is smaller — 55 percent, compared with 52 percent of Black residents, 71 percent of White residents, 70 percent of Native American residents and 79 percent of Asian American residents.

As the hypercontagious Omicron variant rips through regions of the U.S., the science is overwhelming that vaccinations provide the best chance, by far, of avoiding serious outcomes like hospitalization and death. California hospitals, already strained with this spike in cases, are further hampered by staffing shortages brought about by workers testing positive.

In Orange County, where Shapiro works, Latinos are the second-largest demographic but have the lowest vaccination rate: 48 percent of Latino residents have had at least one dose, compared with 69 percent of Black residents and 70 percent of white residents.

Two masked people walk out of a COVID-19 testing and vaccination site at a public school.
People leave a COVID-19 testing and vaccination site at a public school in Los Angeles on Jan. 5. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Medical professionals seeking to improve Latino vaccination rates have multiple hurdles. One of the most basic ones is economic.

Although the vaccine itself is available free to the public, many working-class people struggle to find time off from their jobs to both get the vaccine and then to potentially spend a day recovering from its effects.

“It’s the same cycle again and again and again,” said Shapiro. “It’s actually losing a day of work, that it’s not that our community is not living paycheck to paycheck; they live day by day. If they do not go to their job that day, they don’t get paid. Then that means that there’s no food for the table.”

Loreta Ruiz, who is on the COVID-19 response team for Latino Health Access, has been working on the frontlines of getting more Latinos vaccinated. She is trying to help people overcome not only economic hurdles, but informational ones as well.

“The target that we’re trying to approach are people who have little or no access to health care services, those who have not seen a doctor, people who have two or three jobs. Those with minimum wage, people who are monolingual. People who do not have access to technology or do not know how to use technology, and they have all these barriers that just keep adding to get access to the vaccine,” said Ruiz.

One way to reduce the barriers to vaccination is to make the shots more physically accessible. Ruiz said her organization, which is based in the predominantly Latino city of Santa Ana, Calif., has partnered with local health agencies to administer vaccines through mobile clinics.

A nurse, standing, injects a sitting man with a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
Registered nurse Sue Dillon administers a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a three-day vaccination clinic on July 29, 2021, in Wilmington, Calif. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Protesters at a rally against a COVID vaccine mandate hold signs saying: No vax passport and medical freedom.
Protesters at a rally demonstrating against the L.A. City Council’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city employees and contractors on Nov. 8, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Ruiz also said one of Latino Health Access’s most effective strategies is sending out volunteers into communities most affected by the coronavirus. That model, “Promotores” (or “Promoters” in English), has the volunteers engage with residents on a more personal level, becoming a trusted source of information for them. Ruiz said it is crucial to have volunteers that are from the communities they are working with, especially when battling medical disinformation.

“The issue is that you have misinformation in English, and you have misinformation in Spanish,” said Shapiro. “It’s not like our community will one day go to Fox and actually double-check with CNN and figure out which news is actually correct. We’re living day to day, and there’s a lot to process in information. At the end of the day, my job is to give them the opportunity of information, and at least clear out any misinformation.”

The inequities in not getting Latino immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, vaccinated reflect on a number of complex issues, Ruiz said, including a historical lack of medical resources in underserved communities and the lack of trust in government registries. This is all compounded by even fewer workplace protections afforded to undocumented people.

“You will see, nowadays, that people are still not getting time off work to get vaccinated or to go to the doctor. Employers will not allow them to, and a lot of people will take [the hit] because they’re afraid of losing their job,” said Ruiz.

Shapiro told Yahoo News that with the latest surge in Omicron cases, he is seeing more Latinos in the area visit his clinic to get vaccinated. Ruiz said that although there’s a lot of work left to do, she feels hopeful for the future.

Ruiz also stressed that vaccinating more people, regardless of whatever sparked their initial hesitation, is needed to achieve better health outcomes.

“The people who cannot afford working from home, the people who have to be on the frontlines, these are our people, these are Latinos,” she said. “The people that keep the U.S. economy going and have not missed one day of work since the pandemic started.”

How are vaccination rates affecting the latest COVID surge? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.