COVID-19 vaccine education and outreach are hard enough without a language barrier. But for Missouri’s Spanish-speaking immigrant communities, these efforts are critical.
Many work in high-risk environments like meat and poultry processing plants. And while most still aren’t eligible for a vaccine, health officials and providers face a number of challenges to be ready when they are.
Through grainy video on a recent Facebook live event, Missouri health director Dr. Randall Williams explained who was currently eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. A moment later, an interpreter from the Mexican consulate in Kansas City provided a translation.
The live stream was the consulate’s idea. Consul Alfonso Navarro Bernachi has been working with the Missouri health department since the start of the pandemic. “We’ve been participating in a weekly meetings with the department of health in order to better know what is the outlook of vaccinations,” Bernachi explained.
Right now, anyone 65 and older, or with certain health conditions can get vaccinated in Missouri. Agricultural workers, including at the meat processing plants that employ so many Latinx immigrants, are in the next tier of eligibility.
In addition to the Facebook live event, the consulate has translated fliers, infographics and other written materials for the health department. Bernachi's office also has a network of community connections he hopes can increase buy-in when vaccines become available.
“We are strengthening our community outreach efforts in order to create awareness but also to promote trust in the vaccination process,” Bernachi said.
Missouri’s vaccine rollout has stumbled and the state routinely lags towards the back of the pack, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The numbers in the Latinx community are especially troubling.
Available data show that less than 2 percent of the state’s Latinx population has gotten a vaccine — compared to more than 10 percent for everyone else. Nationally, the trend is similar. According to the CDC, Latinx people make up 9 percent of vaccine recipients, despite accounting for about 18 percent of the population.
Missouri officials are making some efforts to target vulnerable communities. Lisa Cox is with the Department of Health and Senior Services, which has coordinated outreach. “Everybody has different perceptions and they have different trust levels with different types of providers," Cox said. "So knowing that the consulate office would be a partner in that and helping provide that to their community is really valuable.”
According to Cox, the state has dispatched elements of the National Guard to organize vaccination events targeting Black Missourians, another vulnerable group.
Cox said those teams could be a model for reaching other communities hit hard by COVID, like Latinx immigrants. For now, though, most outreach efforts are focusing on written materials.
For Dr. Kathleen Page, written materials are the minimal standard when it comes to education. Page is a Johns Hopkins University professor who co-founded a clinic for Latinx immigrants in Baltimore. She says effective education and outreach must be community-based.
“Going to churches, especially speaking to leaders that people listen to and making sure they have the right information so they can then give it to their constituents,” Page explained.
Page says access is another critical part of increasing buy-in. If people in the communities you’re targeting can get vaccinated easily, there will be more personal stories about the vaccines’ safety. “The messenger matters, right? So if the people who have gotten a vaccine and can talk about it are people from the community, they’re much more likely to be able to engage those who are a little bit hesitant.”
At least one major meat processor in neighboring Iowa has announced it will provide on-site vaccine clinics for workers. A spokesperson for the Missouri department of agriculture says similar plans are in the works here, but nothing is final yet.
Meanwhile, Missouri Governor Mike Parson announced this week the next tier of vaccine eligibility, including agricultural workers, will be activated in mid-March.