COVID Vaccination Rates Double For Latinos in Mecklenburg County, But A Gap Remains
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A purple flag that read “vaccine here today” sat on the sidewalk off the side of Central Avenue in Charlotte last Friday, pointing to one of a few COVID-19 vaccine events Mecklenburg County Public Health hosted around the city that day. Held at San Jose Market, this one was geared toward the Latino community.
It’s a community that Mecklenburg County Public Health’s medical director Dr. Meg Sullivan says has been a focus in vaccination efforts.
“When we look at our Hispanic or Latinx community we have definitely made a lot of progress," she said. "It's been a priority from the beginning.”
Sullivan says while there has been an improvement in closing the gap, there is still work to be done. She says events like the one at San Jose Market are one way to reach the Latino community. Meeting people where they already are is one strategy the county is using, according to Sullivan.
That’s how Tomas Martinez got the vaccine. He works as a truck driver and says when he stopped at San Jose Market to drop off some products, he saw they were administering vaccinations. He hadn’t gotten the vaccine yet because he says with work he hadn’t found the time.
“Since I found the ability to do it, I did it now,” he said. “I want everyone to get vaccinated because that way we know we’re protected and we can hug one another again.”
Juan Lopez also pointed to his work schedule as a reason why he had not been vaccinated. He works in construction and says there never seemed to be time to get vaccinated. He wasn’t planning on getting vaccinated that day, but he happened to walk past San Jose Market.
“I just wanted to get vaccinated for my own safety and for my family’s safety as well,” Lopez said.
Latinos Are Eager To Get Vaccinated
The survey found there are a few barriers keeping Latinos from getting the vaccine. About 64% of unvaccinated Latinos were worried about missing work due to possible side effects. Despite the vaccine being free to all, there are concerns that they might have to cover the cost and show identification.
Sullivan says the county is working on addressing these very concerns.
“We're so proud that we have widespread access to the vaccine in this community and it is free to everybody without needing to show an identification, without needing insurance, without regard to any sort of immigration status,” Sullivan said. “We want to make sure that that message is widely available, but we know that we still haven't gotten to everyone.”
After going into all the stores at the strip mall where the San Jose Market is located and recruiting people at a gas station nearby, the county distributed 39 doses out of their goal of 50 during the event Friday.
Organizations Join Forces To Encourage Vaccinations
Mecklenburg County isn’t working alone on getting the Latino community vaccinated. They’ve joined forces with nonprofit organizations like Action NC.
Organizing Director Hector Vaca says Action NC received funding from the county to go out in the community and encourage people to get vaccinated. They have a team of about 15 people, four of whom speak Spanish, going into the community at least five hours each day.
Vaca says he’s sensed an eagerness and willingness to get the vaccine from the Latino community.
“What I heard most is that people want to get vaccinated because they know they're frontline workers and they need to get back to work and they need to make sure they're safe,” he said.
That’s why Miguel Ramirez chose to get vaccinated at San Jose Market. He says some of his friends work at the store and told him about the vaccine clinic.
“Some jobs are asking you to get vaccinated," Ramirez said, "that if you’re not vaccinated you’re not getting a job.”
He says he works at a restaurant and that’s been his experience.
“But I also voluntarily wanted to get vaccinated for my own health,” he added.
‘A More Humanized Approach’
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, another barrier for Latinos getting the vaccine is not being able to go to a place they trust; 49% of survey respondents listed this as a concern.
That’s where Dr. Carlos Rish comes in. His private practice, Centro Medico Latino, has three locations in Charlotte and has been providing services to the Latino community for decades. His practice is offering the vaccine with no appointment needed.
“I think what has helped is that we are now providing the vaccine in the community and in physicians' offices, for example,” he said. “I feel that they have a lot more trust and less fear in coming to a place where they have come before for other issues.”
Especially for Latinos who are not in the country legally, Rish said, going to a large vaccination event can be frightening. Despite the vaccine being free to anyone regardless of immigration status, he says not everyone is aware.
Rish says he offers the vaccine to all patients as they come into his practice for other medical reasons. He encourages those patients to tell their friends, even if they’ve never been to Centro Medico Latino.
“When the community starts getting ramped up, the neighbors of friends follow along. And so the important part was to get the movement started some way or another,” Rish said.
Rish doesn’t know exactly how many vaccines the practice has distributed. Some days they can get anywhere from 30 to 50 people vaccinated. They’ve also hosted events on the weekends. These sometimes get 200 people, he said.
“I think it has become a more humanized approach and has been more tailored to the different populations,” Rish said.
Building Trust With The Latino Community
Camino Community Center is a Latino-based health and wellness clinic in Charlotte that has also taken this humanized approach to vaccinations.
Carolina Benitez is the clinical supervisor for behavioral health programs at Camino, and she says the organization has been calling its patients and answering any questions or doubts they may have about the vaccine.
“Within the Latino community, sometimes you don't approach government agencies because there's a little mistrust there,” Benitez said. “But when you can come to the community center that you know and that you trust and see the same staff that you see day in and day out, those fears kind of dissipate.”
Benitez says Camino has provided a little less than 2,000 vaccines so far. She says being able to provide information in Spanish in a culturally-sensitive way has made all the difference and will continue to be key in closing the vaccine gap for Latinos in Mecklenburg County.