Living between Puerto Rico and Hawaii, Camille Ortiz Hernández, 51, noticed how differently both United States jurisdictions perceived the COVID-19 vaccine during the pandemic.
In Hawaiʻi, there was a political divide between those that were against and in favor of getting the vaccine. In Puerto Rico, not that much. Even though there were hesitant people in Puerto Rico to be vaccinated, Ortiz Hernández saw there was more interest in the vaccine in her hometown, Moca.
“I perceived how the political ideology of each one determined his or her viewpoint about the vaccine, the pandemic, the social distancing,” Hernández said.
Finally, Ortiz was vaccinated in Puerto Rico after going back from Hawaiʻi in March.
Not politicizing the COVID vaccines has ranked Puerto Rico as one of the most vaccinated jurisdictions in the United States, according to academics and health professionals interviewed by the Miami Herald.
As of July 28, the rate of Puerto Ricans of all ages that received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine stands at 68.56% and has reported 45 COVID cases for every 1,000 people, according to an analysis from the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, and McClatchy Washington Bureau of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The United States, by comparison, has had 105 per 1,000 and has a vaccination rate of 59.18% for its entire population.
However, the vaccination rate differs by state. Florida’s vaccination rate, for instance, is currently at 57.0% of its entire population while Georgia is at 45.9% and Michigan is at 52.9%.
In the United States, conservative states have shown more hesitancy to the COVID vaccine than liberal states, especially those that support former president Donald J. Trump, former senior epidemiologist of Puerto Rico’s Health Department Epidemiology and Investigation Office, David Capó Ramos, said.
In Puerto Rico, the trend is slightly different, although there are similarities, noted the senior epidemiologist.
Even though there are no surveys or studies about it, the senior epidemiologist sees more hesitancy over conservative groups on the island due to doubts about the data available or its long-term effects.
“Not everybody in Puerto Rico is aware of political issues between republicans and democrats in the United States,” said. “Now, the people that still have not got their vaccines are more difficult to convince because they are more aware of the concerns discussed in more conservative media.”
Unlike the states, Lilliam Rodríguez Capó, the president and owner of VOCES, a nonprofit that has vaccinated people in Puerto Rico during the pandemic, said that health did not become a political issue.
Historically, Puerto Ricans have been more likely to be vaccinated to any kind of disease, and their culture more collectivist instead of individualistic like in the U.S, the founder said.
Nonprofits also speed the vaccination, said Rodríguez Capó, because there were immunization centers across the island.
“The government strategies of using civil groups for distributing the vaccines also was key,” Rodríguez Capó added. “For those that do not believe in the government or the pharmaceutical industry, an organization like ours is effective.”
Using community leaders to educate communities in Puerto Rico about the virus and its vaccine helped to reduce misinformation, Mónica Feliú Mójer, a scientific and science communicator, noted.
“In Villalba and Aibonito, among the municipalities with the highest vaccination rates in the island, since early in the vaccination process they worked on the communities organizing census and immunizing on the houses of those without the transportation to get it,” said.
As part of an educational and health campaign about the novel coronavirus, the science communicator said that 10 local leaders were trained by the Ciencia Puerto Rico – a nonprofit that educates and embraces science – to develop a prevention campaign for their communities.
Fear about the vaccine could be overcome by explaining why there is nothing to be scared of, the science communicator recommended. The simpler it is explained, the better.
Scientists, doctors, and experts also helped in educating during the pandemic, Yale University Professor of Cell Biology and Neuroscience and Puerto Rico’s Scientific Coalition president, Daniel Colón Ramos, noted.
In addition, scientific groups organized before and during the pandemic that followed the pandemic’s spread on the island also helped.
“In Puerto Rico, we have been lucky enough to have prepared health professionals to explain to the people in simple words how the vaccine works,” Colón Ramos noted.
In other words, those that understood about the topic Puerto Ricanized the information, said.
But 32% of Puerto Ricans have not been vaccinated. Mainly, due to their fear, mistrust, and fanaticism, the clinical psychologist and investigator on bio-statistics and human behavior, Mirelsa Modestti, said
In her view, disinformation during the pandemic has been the vaccine’s biggest enemy.
Not just because of the confusion about its effectiveness and effects. It is also because they still don’t have clear where, how, and when they can get their vaccines against the COVID-19.
“In Puerto Rico, it is easier to share information sent by the cousin of your coworker than objective, fact-checked, and verified scientific information,” said.
In other Latin American countries, the clinical psychologist concluded, the same pattern has been observed.
Resistance to compulsory immunization
In spite of the high vaccination rate on the island and the non-politicization of the COVID-19 vaccines, there has been opposition to compulsory immunization.
In order to get back to school or college, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Health, Carlos Mellado López, announced that students 12 years or older need to be vaccinated against COVID-19. In addition to students, school workers such as teachers and janitors also need to be vaccinated.
Students immunocompromised or allergic to the vaccine are exempt from getting their shot, added.
Lisie Janet Burgos Muñiz, a legislator from the conservative party, Proyecto Dignidad, publicly questioned the legality of mandatory vaccination against COVID-19 because of the pandemic.
As well, the legislator filed a bill in the House of Representatives to avoid imposing special restrictions on the unvaccinated against COVID-19 at work, said. As of today, it hasn’t been voted on yet.