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Health Leaders Tackle Low Vaccination Rates Among Latinos

A Hartford HealthCare worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public

As soon as COVID-19 vaccines were made available to all age groups, Liany Arroyo knew there was a chance for monumental change.

“We really used that day to go where people would be at,” said Arroyo, director of Hartford’s Health Department. “We knew Walmart would be a good place to go, so we parked ourselves in the Walmart parking lot. We had 260 vaccinations, and we worked with the community to get that out.”

Nearly 1 million residents in Connecticut have been fully vaccinated. However, officials with the state Department of Public Health report that Hispanic communities still lag behind in the vaccine rollout.

Arroyo joined other health leaders at a virtual gathering this month to discuss equitable vaccine distribution among the Latino community. She said the city of Hartford has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state. Latino residents account for only 19% of those fully vaccinated statewide. Numbers for other ethnic groups are also low, with Black residents at only 22.5%.

Arroyo said she thought about barriers -- from transportation to technology, language access and even age. Her team went as far as calling people to encourage them to get vaccinated. They used listservs like voter registration information and senior lists.

“What we have found is that outbound calls really do make a difference. We also simplified our sign-up process,” said Arroyo. “We tried to be as innovative and as flexible.”

In Hartford, the vaccination rate among residents 65 and older stands at 90%. Arroyo said outreach efforts are working, but there is still work to be done.

Kica Matos is a community organizer, activist and vice president of initiatives at the Vera Institute of Justice. She led a project called “Vacunate New Haven!” modeled after the “Get Out The Vote!” efforts. They went door-to-door in communities like Fair Haven, a neighborhood hit hard by the pandemic.

“We launched those efforts in early March, and we have knocked on 3,056 doors,” said Matos. “According to the director of the Fair Haven clinic, we have vaccinated at least 5,000 people in that short amount of time.”

Dr. Jorge Moreno, an internist and assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine, said turning vaccine hesitancy into vaccine trust and confidence is a two-way street with patients.

“Listen, listen, listen, because you don’t want to assume what [patients] are concerned about. You want to really hone in on their concerns,” said Moreno. “If we start by saying a sermon or a requirement, the conversation will go nowhere.”

Moreno said battling misinformation in the Hispanic community may be a daily challenge, but validating all concerns is the best way to build trust. Otherwise, herd immunity won’t be possible -- that's because Latinos make up 17% of Connecticut’s population.

Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Brenda covers the Latino/a, Latinx community with an emphasis on wealth-based disparities in health, education and criminal justice.

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