(l to r) Irma R. Muñoz, Founder and Executive Director, Mujeres de la Tierra; Esperanza Vielma, Executive Director, Environmental Coalition for Water; Jorge Pingarron, Canvasser, Todos Unidos

Health officials have been constant in their urging of people to get vaccinated. But the message, no matter how often repeated, still isn’t reaching many who live in disadvantaged communities.

Less than half of the people living in Latino and African American communities throughout California have been vaccinated. To improve the numbers, and growing concern of the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” community based organizations are now hiring bilingual outreach workers or promotoras who can canvas the neighborhoods they actually live in. 

The strategy is the belief that those who aren’t viewed as “outsiders” and speak the same language are more likely to have the ear and trust of their  neighbors, family, and a large network of contacts and relationships that a government agency would not have.

The goal is to have direct face-to-face conversations that can help to troubleshoot potential obstacles and misinformation that may be deterring people from being vaccinated. 

“People get annoying phone calls all the time, but once you’re there, they see you and your uniform. It’s a little bit easier to talk to them and to try to make conversation, and convince them to get the vaccine,” said Jorge Pingarron, a canvasser for Todos Unidos. 

Because of the pandemic, however, outreach workers don’t rely on “door knocking” and instead expand their reach to fellow residents as they go through their daily activities — talking to them at bus stops, metro stations, tienditas, panaderias, and engaging local street vendors. 

Personal conversations reveal source of reluctance

Through this process of having a somewhat more casual and more personal conversation, neighborhood outreach workers have heard multiple reasons why people aren’t being vaccinated.

Among the startling reasons given are many people in the Latino community have been told by their clergy not to be vaccinated. 

“Parishioners said that their church leaders say, ‘don’t get vaccinated, it will be a sin, the injection has poison,’” said Irma R. Muñoz, founder and executive director of Mujeres de la Tierra (MDLT). 

For those with strong religious convictions, it’s extremely difficult for them to consider ignoring the direction expressed to them by their priest or from other religious leaders they look up to.  

“They are all against the COVID-19 vaccine,” Muñoz said, referencing the strong religious Latino community living in the MacArthur Park area of Los Angeles that MDLT has canvassed.  

Similar accounts of clergy instructing parishioners to refuse vaccination have been noted in other Latino communities, including the Northeast San Fernando Valley.  

Outreach workers plant the seed to encourage and reassure those who aren’t vaccinated, and who specifically can in turn influence those in their entire household to get vaccinated, especially because many Latino households are multi-generational with grandparents living with their children and grandchildren.

The approach by outreach workers is to inform and persuade the senior members to get vaccinated, and then the younger family members will get vaccinated.  

“The kids are going back to school now. You have people that are not vaccinated that are then infecting children, and then those children go to school and there are other children who are of an age where they can’t get vaccinated, and those numbers are increasing.” said Esperanza Vielma, executive director of Environmental Coalition for Water (ECW).

The risk for hospitalizations and COVID-19 associated deaths are highest for the unvaccinated.

Fighting back against lack of trust  

Vielma notes that the only way to get the message across to so many different families in communities where many different languages are spoken is to continue with in-person communication.

Lack of trust of the government is an anticipated hurdle met by outreach workers, who have the difficult task of convincing people that their private information won’t be used against them. 

“Communities don’t want to provide personal information such as immigration status, because a lot of folks are not documented,” said Muñoz said. “To get the vaccine they have to provide an ID, but nobody wants to do it because they think that the next thing that’s going to happen is the IRS or Immigration will knock on the door to take them away.”

It can be difficult for outreach workers to set up vaccination appointments for those in working class communities. Many large vaccination centers that were set up were closed as cities lifted restrictions.

“Most people were not available for appointments Monday through Saturday. They were available for appointments on Sunday, but unfortunately, there were no places that were giving vaccinations until recently,” Muñoz said.

So far, MDLT has successfully made nearly 2,300 vaccination appointments that came from 63,700 conversations with “neighbors.” They’ve had a team of 25 who know the community and have clocked in 4700 hours.

“We’ve been quite successful in convincing people,” said Munoz, “but there are still many places with folks who don’t want to get vaccinated for a number of reasons: Religious, political, and being found out by the (migra and putting their families at risk.” 

Persistence is required.  Assigned to four zip codes, ECW is in its ninth week of outreach and has had 80,586 conversations and 700 actual vaccine sign ups. It is posing the question to those who remain unvaccinated,  

“What is the positive vs. the negative?” 

“Amplify that message over and over again in terms of how important it is to get vaccinated whether it’s for your own kids, your nieces, your nephews, or your grand kids,” Vielma said

“We need to collaborate with all of our different agencies so we’re giving out the same message and we’re getting people vaccinated, because that is going to be the only solution.”

The organizations included in this article received grant funding from the Governor’s Operations Office for Community Outreach. They participated in a recent media briefing co-hosted by Ethnic Media Services and the Department on Aging.