Every week, Socorro Juarez takes to the streets of Santa Ana and shimmies to cumbia, quebradita or whatever loud music is on her old iPod to capture the attention of Spanish-speaking passersby.
If the music doesn’t get their attention, her homemade costume will. The 57-year-old wears a vaccination syringe ensemble fashioned from paper and plaster. She hands out fliers in English and Spanish with details on where and when to get COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters in Orange County.
“Ya tiene su vacuna? Have you already had your vaccine?” she asks people walking by.
Juarez, an immigrant from Zacatecas, Mexico, who now lives in Santa Ana, is an unabashed foot soldier in a herculean effort by community nonprofits and healthcare providers to close the Latino COVID-19 vaccination gap in the state’s third-most populous county.
In Orange County, only 49% of Latinos are fully vaccinated — the county's least vaccinated ethnic group, according to state data.
The trend mirrors what’s happening across the state. Latinos are the largest ethnic group in California, but rank next to last in vaccination rates, with 58% fully vaccinated. The rate for Black people is 56%, according to state numbers.
Several factors, including disinformation, have heightened this ethnic disparity. Lies about the vaccine — such as fake stories that it causes infertility or contains data-harvesting microchips — circulate in Spanish on Facebook and other social media platforms.
But the number one reason seems to be “I don't have time,” said Loreta Ruiz, an assistant director of the Latino Health Access COVID-19 response team, which conducted an informal survey of Latinos in Santa Ana, whose population of 330,000 is roughly four-fifths Latino.
Latino Health Access is a nonprofit group that has long been in the community and has been working on COVID-19 outreach since the start of the pandemic.
“Our target audience are people who have two or three jobs, work on weekends,” Ruiz said. “We have tried to bring the vaccine to people in order for them to have more access to it. We have to bring down the barriers.”
Latino Health Access regularly hosts vaccination clinics, with late shifts that sometimes last until 8 p.m. They’ve deployed mobile vaccination clinics to large apartment complexes and mobile home parks. They’ve paired up with local healthcare agencies to administer vaccines at home to people who have mobility issues. They’ve partnered with the Mexican consulate in Santa Ana, restaurants and supermarkets in predominantly Latino areas, such as Fourth Street in Santa Ana.
But their most effective strategy has been their deployment of nearly 100 promotores — Spanish-speaking community health workers— who operate in predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Orange County, Ruiz said.
Since 1993, Latina Health Access promotores have earned the trust of many Spanish-speaking communities in the county by going directly to people — oftentimes walking door-to-door — to offer health services to low-income residents in some of Santa Ana's densest areas. Many of the promotores live in the same communities they serve, helping to educate their own neighbors about diabetes, breast cancer, obesity, domestic violence, parenting, mental health and more.
"They are trusted in these communities," Ruiz said.
Juarez's costume is just part of a larger strategy to get Latinos vaccinated, she said.
Latino Health Access isn't the only organization taking creative measures to get more people to take the jab. Soon after vaccines became readily available last year, local governments and businesses went to outlandish efforts to entice the vaccine hesitant.
In New Jersey, government officials partnered with local breweries to give away free beer. Washington, D.C. officials distributed free flowers and plants. Government representatives of one rural Illinois town gave away 100 free targets for trap, skeet or sporting clay shooting. Other states gave away cash. And who can forget Krispy Kreme's free doughnut giveaway?
Juarez is one of 78 promotores for Latino Health Access dedicated to COVID-19 education. On a recent Friday afternoon, she threw on her syringe outfit and walked along Camino Capistrano, pulling behind her a speaker on wheels, in front of Union High School in San Juan Capistrano. Two other promotoras joined her, including one dressed in a coronavirus costume and another handing out flyers with information on upcoming vaccine clinics.
Some motorists honked. Others waved. Veronica Godinez Woltman stepped out of her classroom with her 10-year-old daughter Isabella and asked Juarez if it was OK to take a photo with her.
“This is the coolest thing,” Godinez Woltman said just before snapping a photo of her daughter cheesing it up next to Juarez.
Both mother and daughter said they were vaccinated.
“This is great that you’re spreading awareness,” Godinez Woltman told Juarez. “Thank you.”
Juarez smiled underneath her face mask. It heartens her when people tell her they are vaccinated and boosted, if eligible.
About a year ago, Juarez traveled to Zacatecas, Mexico to visit her older sister Elena. She’d been calling her for weeks, trying to convince her to get vaccinated. At 64, her sister was eligible. She was also at risk with uncontrolled diabetes, Juarez said.
Elena lives in a small town where people poke fun of those who wear face masks, Juarez said. Some use unproven or bogus alternative methods to try to rid themselves of the virus and disinformation about how the virus proliferates.
“It’s so important for you to get vaccinated,” she told her during the visit.
“But my children think the vaccine could make my diabetes worse,” Elena responded. They'd heard it from friends on social media.
Juarez told her it wasn’t true. Eventually, Elena promised Juarez she’d do it.
Elena got one dose but didn’t get around to the second. Instead, she contracted COVID-19, Juarez said.
“I can’t believe it. Here I am trying to persuade strangers to get vaccinated, but I couldn’t even convince my own sister to get fully inoculated,” Juarez thought to herself when she got the bad news.
The virus left Elena with a damaged lung and heart. She now relies on an oxygen tank. In early February, Elena’s health began to deteriorate. She was in and out of hospitals.
Now, Juarez said she tries to do what she couldn’t do for her sister — convince others to get fully vaccinated.
On a recent weekend, Juarez shared her sister’s story with a couple who had arrived at Latino Health Access for other services. After talking with them about their initial health issues, she convinced the woman to get her booster. But the husband was hesitant.
“Honestly, with or without the vaccine, people are still getting sick,” Rigoberto Ramirez, 40, of Santa Ana, told Juarez. “Sometimes I wonder if the vaccines actually work.”
“Let me tell you about my sister,” Juarez responded. Convinced, Ramirez promised he’d return in a few days to get it done.
“Come on. Just get it over with. Let’s do it now,” Juarez cajoled.
He did. He smiled when the staff and nurses at the vaccination site broke into applause.
In early March, Juarez got a call about her sister being gravely ill. Almost immediately, she boarded a plane to Zacatecas. On Sunday, Juarez returned after spending two weeks at Elena’s bedside.
“I should have listened to you,” Elena told her sister.
Juarez shook her head. “You’re a fighter. Give it your all,” Juarez told her.
On the day she left, Juarez hugged Elena. She kissed her forehead.
“We’ll see each other soon,” Juarez told her.
But, she said, she knows it was likely the last time she’ll see Elena alive.
On Monday, she plans to return to the streets in costume.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.