VDH, community groups partner on vaccine outreach to underserved groups

By Lars Åkerson, contributor

Seven weeks after his first dose of Covid vaccine, José Ríos is still waiting for a second shot. The 67-year-old Harrisonburg resident went to the Rockingham County Fairgrounds on a Saturday in early February after a friend at church told him about the vaccination clinic there, but he says a scheduling mix-up has kept him from completing the series. Not knowing who to contact, Ríos is still waiting for a call from the clinic, unsure of how to proceed.

Nearly four months into the largest vaccination campaign in recent history, there is much to celebrate. More than 435 million doses have been administered globally. More than 46,600 doses have been given to Harrisonburg and Rockingham County residents. One in 10 area residents has now been fully vaccinated. But state and local officials, together with area distribution and health education partners, are still trying to address racial inequities in public health efforts.

Screenshot from The Citizen’s vaccine dashboard.

Data provided by the Virginia Department of Health indicates that per-capita vaccination rates of Latino and Black residents of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are half and two-thirds that of their white residents, respectively. Those rates drop to one-third and one-half that of white residents when comparing fully vaccinated people.

In addition to practical hurdles like language and cultural barriers, work schedules and access to transportation, vaccine hesitancy among Black and Latino populations is well documented phenomenon well-documented phenomenon, despite occurring at lower rates than vaccine opposition among the white population. Even so, Black and Latino residents’ mistrust has a legitimate historical basis, says Laura Lee Wight of the Virginia Department of Health.

Wight, the population health community coordinator for the Central Shenandoah Health District, said this reality is motivating VDH’s efforts to partner with community organizations to provide reliable information about vaccine safety and vaccination clinics.

The state health department advertises a multilingual hotline with Covid-related information 8am–8pm daily. However, callers first hear a 15-second announcement in English before a monolingual automated menu instructing them to select their preferred language.

Local connections have proven more reliable. Health district director Dr. Laura Kornegay said in a statement that the Harrisonburg and Rockingham County governments “have been tremendous partners in helping with outreach.”

These efforts have included helping area residents who lack internet access schedule vaccination appointments by phone and sending multilingual informational flyers home to families with students’ packed lunches.

Still, partnerships with existing community networks are especially important, according to Wight. With their help, she said, “people who don’t speak English or don’t trust the government” can find reliable information about vaccines from others that they trust.

These community partners include the Promotores de Salud, the NAACP, New Bridges Immigrant Resource Center and the Futuro Latino Coalition. Local congregations are also helping the Health Department “provide safe space to express fears, uncertainties, and questions about vaccination,” Wight said.

The Virginia Department of Health has been making a concerted effort to establish relationships with groups like these since December, when the Food & Drug Administration authorized the first Covid-19 vaccines for emergency use in the United States.

One strategy is working with health-marketing and community-engagement consultants, including the Latino-owned HMA Associates. The consulting firm has promoted virtual listening sessions to receive input from Latino and Hispanic leaders across the state.

Onesimo Baltazar Corona, coordinator of Harrisonburg’s Futuro Latino Coalition, recently hosted a Facebook Live conversation with VDH health educators for a Spanish-speaking audience. The broadcast was a natural fit for the coalition, which aims to empower Latino youth and families with reliable information to make healthy choices and lead in their own communities.

“We were delighted to participate,” Baltazar Corona said. “We want to spread the word that the vaccine is necessary to contain this pandemic and that being vaccinated is an important way to protect ourselves.”

The hour-long conversation was held in the evening to allow the coalition’s constituents to participate, many of whom have daytime work schedules. Though it was planned as a one-off event, Baltazar Corona says the coalition is talking with the health department about future meetings. They hope to feature the testimonies of people who have been vaccinated and invite more community participation.

Both Baltasar and Wight emphasized that vaccination is free to all and that recipients are not required to present information regarding citizenship or immigration status.

While the VDH has centralized vaccination administration in hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies, Wight said the department has not ruled out partnering with essential employers to offer on-site vaccination for hard-to-reach or transient populations.

Eutimeo and María Eva Martínez stand in front of her Harrisonburg taco truck where Eutimeo says he sometimes talks with customers about vaccination. Their daughter, more comfortable speaking English than he is, recently helped him register to be vaccinated.

Beyond the health department’s formal programs, individual initiatives are springing up as well. On Sunday afternoon, as Eutimeo Martínez helped his wife María Eva in her Harrisonburg taco truck on its first Sunday shift of the season, he was excited to share that his daughter – who speaks English – had managed to get him an appointment for his shot at the fairgrounds. His wait was almost up. In the meantime, he chatted with customers about why they should get vaccinated as soon as they can.

“Why not? We have to be responsible, not just for ourselves, but for one another,” he said.

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