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Arizona Needs To Better Incorporate Spanish Into Its Vaccination Plan, Activists Say

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In Arizona, COVID-19 vaccination rates for Latinos are only about half of what they are for white residents. Civil rights advocates say the state hasn't moved quickly enough to provide vaccine information in Spanish. Angela Gervasi with member station KNAU in Flagstaff reports.

ANGELA GERVASI, BYLINE: Kristin Urquiza grew up in Maryvale. It's in Phoenix, but she describes it as a little New York.

KRISTIN URQUIZA: On my mom's street, we have folks from El Salvador, people on the right-hand side that are from Mexico.

GERVASI: The pandemic hit Maryvale hard. Urquiza's father died from the virus last summer. In one Maryvale ZIP code, a little over a third of the population has been vaccinated. A half hour drive away, in the wealthier, whiter suburb of Sun City West, it's more than 81% percent. Urquiza runs the nonprofit Marked by COVID, which is affiliated with the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue.

URQUIZA: I don't think we did what we needed to do to ensure that that basic information was available in a language that was accessible to the people who are most in harm's way.

GERVASI: There is Spanish-language information about the pandemic in Arizona, but it's been slow to roll out. The State Health Department didn't offer online vaccine registration in Spanish until February, two months after registration started. The department says it was a configuration issue. In those early months, the state established large-scale vaccination sites in stadiums and arenas, but critics say they weren't accessible to all Spanish-speaking communities. People had trouble getting time off work, for example. Dr. Cara Christ is the director of the Department of Health Services.

CARA CHRIST: Our mass vaccination sites were really only one part of the strategy. We always were looking to do community-based vaccination sites.

GERVASI: She says the state has partnered with local groups to launch those sites. But she adds...

CHRIST: Arizona's a decentralized public health system. And so the counties really are responsible for the vaccination efforts in their areas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish), OK?

GERVASI: Two hours north of Phoenix in Flagstaff, the County Health Department held a clinic with a local church and an interfaith organization. Here, there's a medical interpreter and Spanish-speaking volunteers like Nellie Navarro.

NELLIE NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

GERVASI: Navarro says information is key. She had her own doubts before getting the shot. Now, she's glad she did. She feels safe hugging her mother again.

NAVARRO: (Speaking Spanish).

GERVASI: Lydia Guzman says holding clinics at familiar spaces can help eliminate distrust or fear. She's with Chicanos por la Causa, a social justice nonprofit. She says it's also crucial to allow local leaders to encourage the vaccine.

LYDIA GUZMAN: The faith leaders, the teachers, the local doctors, the state - they're doing a lot. Could they have done more? I would say that they could have done more but sooner. The fact that we're playing catch-up is sad.

GERVASI: Lately, the State Health Department has targeted certain communities with cell phone alerts, inviting people to a Spanish-language town hall about vaccination. Guzman says it's a good idea for a demographic that tends to utilize texting and WhatsApp.

GUZMAN: If you can get a message in, just like the Amber Alert or something like that, into your phone, this is a great way to give and deliver a message to a hard-to-reach population.

GERVASI: Other activists agree it's a useful tactic, but think the state needs to use it more frequently, saying the messages need to be repeated to be effective. That's not a problem in some Arizona counties like Santa Cruz, where Spanish is more widely spoken. Many health care workers here are bilingual, and it has among the state's highest vaccination rates.

For NPR News, I'm Angela Gervasi in Flagstaff.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIKKI LEIGH SONG, "SLOWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Angela Gervasi

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