Think Hispanics simply don’t want the COVID-19 vaccine? In Miami, it’s complicated

The idea that a large number of Hispanics will not get vaccinated despite being one of the demographic groups most affected by COVID-19 has been so widespread and accepted that President Joe Biden’s administration recently announced it would invest $10 billion to combat the problem affecting minority communities. His plan includes producing commercials for Hispanic TV channels and improving access to vaccination centers.

The situation, however, is much more nuanced in South Florida. Based on a recent survey, interviews with the community and a data analysis, el Nuevo Herald found evidence that suggests the majority of Hispanics in the area want to get vaccinated and are already getting vaccinated at normal rates, despite facing obstacles.

One of them, José Alfredo, a 52-year-old Honduran who has lived in South Miami for seven years, said he wants the shot to protect his loved ones. The Herald did not publish his last name as he is an undocumented immigrant and fears deportation.

“If I could, I would send the vaccine over there, too,” he said, referring to his seven children who live in Tegucigalpa. “Just like everyone else, I want to see my family healthy.”

José Alfredo (right), a laborer, holds a flyer with information about workers’ rights and a kit including COVID protection guidance from the CDC, masks and hand sanitizer.
José Alfredo (right), a laborer, holds a flyer with information about workers’ rights and a kit including COVID protection guidance from the CDC, masks and hand sanitizer.

Like José Alfredo, many Hispanics want to get vaccinated, but are running into barriers while doing so. Some of the limitations, which affect all Hispanics regardless of their race and socioeconomic status, include the inability to miss a work day to get vaccinated, lack of legal documentation, not being able to speak English or Spanish (some only speak indigenous languages from Latin America), mistrust in the healthcare industry and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. They also find it difficult to keep up with the frequent changes to vaccination requirements and vaccination center locations.

Erick Sánchez, an organizer for WeCount!, an organization for immigrant workers in South Florida, visits different parts of Miami-Dade County each morning, offering help to farmers and day laborers.

The activist said he estimates that between 70% and 80% of all Hispanics with whom he interacts ultimately decide they want the vaccine, after he explains what it is and how it works. But then other issues come up.

As the demand for their work has plummeted due to the pandemic, some have lost their place to live or had trouble paying their bills or buying food. They can’t afford to miss a day of work to explore the possibility of receiving a much-needed dose.

Others don’t have government-issued IDs, licenses or other ways to prove state residency, such as utility bills. Although they pay rent in a Florida home, they do so in large groups of up to 10 at a time, Sánchez said, and that means not everyone has an electricity or water bill in their name.

Zackery Good, the assistant to the city manager of Homestead, told the Herald that Miami-Dade County vaccination sites accept farmworker IDs, often issued by organizations like WeCount!, as proof of residency. The county mayor’s office confirmed that information to the Herald, but it has not yet been widely shared.

The state’s requirements for vaccination, which have caused confusion by changing frequently and often providing conflicting information, are yet another reason Hispanics who want to get vaccinated, haven’t been able to do it.

On a recent morning in early April, Gabriel Alcala, a 36-year-old illustrator, drove 45 minutes from his home in South Dade, near Zoo Miami, to a vaccination center in North Miami Beach in hopes of receiving his first dose, as the state had recently expanded eligibility.

But he was rejected. The site had changed from a vaccination center that could also give first doses, to one that distributed only second doses, just a few days earlier. Alcala had to wait while his father — who had received the first dose in the same site three weeks earlier — received his second shot.

“I’ll find it somewhere,” Alcala said. “I’m still young, I work from home. But I would like to get it.”

Hispanics want the vaccine, but they often don’t have reliable information

Although some national polls have found the opposite about the demographic, preliminary findings from a local study suggest that the majority of Hispanics in Miami-Dade County are willing to get the vaccine.

The research consisted of a series of interviews conducted by psychology experts at Florida International University. From October 2020 to February 2021, researchers spoke to about 200 immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean — mainly from Cuba, Colombia, Honduras and Nicaragua — who have lived in South Florida for about 14 years.

Miguel Cano, one of the lead researchers of the study, which has not yet been published, said in an interview with the Herald that the majority of the participants — 74% — reported that they understand that getting vaccinated is a collective action to prevent the spread of the virus and almost 70% responded that they plan to get vaccinated to protect their families.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have announced that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, at least one of the FIU study participants cited concerns about the side effects during an interview with the Herald.

The Herald did not identify the 39-year-old Venezuelan national at FIU’s request because he’s a participant in other ongoing research.

The individual, who works in real estate and lives in Glades County in the Southwest Florida, said he plans to get vaccinated, but not until eight to 12 months in the future. That’s because he’s scared of how quickly scientists created the vaccine, he said.

“I personally am cautious with everything I do in my life,” he said.

He pointed to how several European countries halted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine after recording several cases of people who developed blood clots. In the United States, federal authorities this week recommended pausing use of Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine while they investigate adverse cases of blood clotting.

Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease specialist at FIU, said some people “are looking at rare events and leaping to conclusions” as few people have developed clots compared to the millions who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine. The same is true with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Marty suggested that people who are still undecided about the vaccine should balance the benefits versus the risks, which include long-term risks of a COVID infection, hospitalization and even death.

“The vaccine wins easily,” she wrote in an email to the Herald.

Laborers gather during the early morning hours at different points around Homestead and Florida City, hoping to be hired to earn a salary as many are homeless after losing a steady income due to the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.
Laborers gather during the early morning hours at different points around Homestead and Florida City, hoping to be hired to earn a salary as many are homeless after losing a steady income due to the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

Although the FIU team did not compile official data on the reasons people said they would not get vaccinated, Cano said the main reason he heard as an interviewer was that they had heard negative information about the vaccine.

“There are many myths, like that they use cells from fetuses or that women are going to be sterile if they get the vaccine, or even that it has a chip [a conspiracy theory falsely preaches that people are being injected with an implant microchip to control humans through the vaccine],” said Cano, who doubles as an FIU professor and director of the doctoral program in epidemiology..

Gladys Ramirez, another of the FIU interviewers, also described misinformation as an issue. It’s one that affects those in lower socioeconomic classes or with less education more severely, she said.

“Educated people have more information because they are people who like to read, who like to learn about what can be good or bad,” she said. “But there are people of a lower stratum, of a lower level who are guided by what their friend of a friend said.”

One of those complicated cases: Sebastián, a Guatemalan from Quiché who has lived in Homestead for nine years. The Herald did not publish his last name because he’s an undocumented immigrant and fears deportation.

When asked if he would get the vaccine, the 48-year-old said he doesn’t trust clinics because as he once visited one and “they only took his money from him without telling him what he had.”

Also, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that the virus can be contracted by anyone, Sebastian said he heard it only attacks the weak and he’s strong because he works in construction or landscaping for about $80 a day, when he finds someone willing to hire him.

“If you’re healthy you don’t need the vaccine,” he said he had heard someone say, mistakenly thinking that the vaccine is the cure. “That is why they should give it to the sick who are hospitalized.”

How is the vaccination of Hispanics going in Florida so far?

In Florida, vaccination of Hispanics is falling a bit short, with the exception of two counties where vaccination rates are proportional to the Hispanic population, according to a data analysis by the Herald.

Almost 22% of the vaccines administered so far were given to people who self-identified as Hispanic, according to state data released Thursday . The group makes up 25% of Florida’s population.

Miami-Dade and Broward are the two counties doing the best in Florida when considering the Hispanic population of those counties and the percentage of vaccinated individuals who identified as Hispanic. Other counties, like Orange, Hillsborough and Palm Beach, are lagging behind. The five counties analyzed have the largest Hispanic populations in the state.

In Miami-Dade, the mayor’s office has deployed strike teams called “VACS Now” that visit neighborhoods with the lowest vaccination rates identified as such by the Department of Health. Eleven of the 16 neighborhoods the team has visited are Hispanic majority, like certain areas of Hialeah and Allapattah.

These groups go door-to-door talking to people and informing them about the danger of COVID-19, the importance of getting vaccinated and where to get vaccinated, according to the program’s coordinator, Alex Muñoz. They also help them register for the vaccine on the county website.

Since the vaccination process began in December, 70.3% of the people who have been vaccinated in Miami-Dade are Hispanic, while the group represents 68.5% of the county’s population.

In Broward, 31.3% of people who have been vaccinated identified themselves as Hispanic. In that county, Hispanics make up 29.8% of the population.

In early March the federal government began opening massive vaccination sites around the country to improve vaccination rates in underserved communities. This effort helped vaccinate Hispanics in Florida, especially Miami-Dade, but didn’t work as well in Black communities. (It is important to note that the state data does not distinguish between Black people and people who are Black and also Hispanic, so when considering Black communities, it includes Hispanics who also identify as Black.)

In Florida, the Federal Emergency Management Agency opened sites in four counties: Miami-Dade, Duval, Hillsborough and Orange. Other counties also got satellite and mobile sites with less capacity.

The FEMA-run site in Miami-Dade, located at Miami Dade College North, vaccinated Hispanics at a level proportional to the population, according to data from March 4 to March 23 obtained and analyzed by the Herald.

However, in the other Florida counties, the vaccination rate for Hispanics fell a bit short. Hispanics make up 40% of the population in the eight counties with FEMA sites, but only 37% of FEMA vaccines were administered to individuals who identified themselves as Hispanic.

Some of the Hispanics who have already been vaccinated have been excited to contribute to the end of the pandemic.

Pedro Diaz, 66, and his wife Secundina Gonzalez, 62, got vaccinated at a Miami-Dade County center in Homestead in early March. Both received it, although at the time Gonzalez did not meet state eligibility requirements.

Gonzalez got lucky, as she was in the car with her husband when he went. Because the age restriction would drop to 60 in a few days, the nurses at the site told her she could get it too

While driving from their home in Cutler Bay to the site, Gonzalez felt nervous because it’s a new vaccine and because of “the size of the needle,” she said as she laughed to herself.

“But I feel perfectly fine,” she said after the shot, with a huge grin on her face.

Miami Herald staff writers Sarah Blaskey and Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.