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Mistrust, disinformation among Latinos on Covid vaccine worries Hispanic doctors

“We’re the ones who are going to have to take that charge up and reassure our community,” says a Florida-based research doctor.
Image: Sady Ferguson administers a Covid vaccine to medical office assistant Yvelisse Covington at University Hospital in Newark, N.J., on Dec. 15, 2020.
Sady Ferguson administers a Covid vaccine to medical office assistant Yvelisse Covington at University Hospital in Newark, N.J., on Dec. 15, 2020.Kirsten Luce / NYT via Redux

MIAMI — As vaccinations against the coronavirus begin to roll out across the country, Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo says he's been getting many questions from his predominantly Latino patients, including whether the vaccine contains the virus and whether there are side effects to taking it.

“People are not sure what’s in the vaccines. They want to know,” said Carrasquillo, the chief of general internal medicine at the University of Miami and one of the principal investigators for the Janssen vaccine trial.

Covid-19 has hit U.S. Latinos disproportionately hard in many areas of the U.S., making vaccinations a crucial public health mission. But doctors like Carrasquillo are hearing skepticism about the vaccines because of the lack of reliable information, especially in Spanish, coupled with disinformation that has been circulating.

Of all the questions Carrasquillo’s patients have come to him with, what alarms him most are conspiracy theories about the vaccine. He says they have sent him videos in English with supposed doctors falsely claiming that the vaccines will alter people’s DNA.

Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a Democratic strategist who had been keeping track of disinformation appearing in Spanish over the November elections, says anti-vaccine propaganda has intensified in recent weeks among Latinos.

While some of it consists of QAnon conspiracy theories, she's also seeing memes or jokes about side effects.

While the jokes may seem harmless, “it’s the repetition that worries me," Pérez-Verdía said. "People are seeing this constantly.”

Carrasquillo says this is the moment for Latino leaders, including doctors, Spanish-language media, and Hispanic elected officials, to step up.

“We’re the ones who are going to have to take that charge up and reassure our community,” Carrasquillo said.

Around 63 percent of Hispanics say they would definitely or probably get a Covid-19 vaccine, a higher number than white adults, who stand at 61 percent, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

But another recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation asking more specific questions found that only 26 percent of Hispanics said they would get the vaccine as soon as possible, compared to 40 percent of whites. Around 43 percent of Latinos said they would “wait and see,” and 18 percent said they would definitely not get the vaccine, according to the survey.

Around the world, raising awareness about immunization so communities are educated and informed has always been key in executing successful vaccination campaigns. But the Covid-19 vaccines were developed so rapidly amid an intense election cycle and rising infection and death rates, that effective information targeting Latinos has been scarce.

In New York, Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, a pediatrician with NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center who sees children from heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, said she is seeing “distrust and fear” among her patients’ parents. They ask her what she "really" thinks about the vaccine, she says.

Bracho-Sanchez is seeing disinformation circulate among large WhatsApp groups. “The network has been used in our community to warn each other of things, like ‘la migra,'" or immigration officers, Bracho-Sanchez said. “These are networks that have grown out of necessity in the past few years. They are established. They are well rehearsed and well set up to spread disinformation."

Because Covid-19 has hit Latino neighborhoods hard, the fear makes residents vulnerable to disinformation, she said. It’s important to message the vaccine well and at a level that everyone understands, Bracho-Sanchez said.

Among farmworkers, fear, but also hope

For farmworkers, who are among the nation's essential workers, Covid-19 has been rampant since the start of the pandemic.

In California’s Salinas Valley, known as “America’s Salad Bowl,” about 20 percent of farmworkers tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies in October, versus 5 percent of the state’s population, according to a study by the University of California, Berkeley.

Many farmworkers work and live in crowded conditions that make an ideal environment for virus transmission.

Dr. Alexandra Franco specializes in internal medicine and infectious diseases at Clinica Sierra Vista in Bakersfield, one of several federally funded clinics that provide care to the underserved community in the Central Valley area. She says she has heard all kinds of conspiracy theories from patients.

Many are Mexican and Central American migrants who work in the grape and orange fields. Traumatized from Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, some have approached Franco with fears over whether the vaccine is being used to “get rid of them,” or how the vaccine will allow the government to track them down and deport them. Patients have heard it will reduce women’s fertility, and one even commented on the vaccine changing their gender.

“The bright side is that among Latino field workers, I would say the majority wants to get the vaccine,” said Franco.

Some farmworkers are proactively calling the clinic to ask when the vaccine will arrive and when they can get it. “That’s the reassuring part,” Franco said.

Franco and other health care experts advocated for getting the vaccine sooner to farmworkers. She said Clinica Sierra Vista should be getting the Moderna vaccine next week and could be vaccinating farmworkers as early as the first week in January after their health care workers get it. Intensive care units around Central California, she said, are full of patients who are Latino farmworkers that have contracted the disease.

“I think if we get them vaccinated sooner than the regular community, we may see a positive impact at least in our ICU capacity,” said Franco.

Groups are mobilizing

Across the country, hospitals, clinics and community leaders are mobilizing to educate and reassure the public about the vaccine. Latino elected officials like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-TX, have tweeted pictures of themselves receiving the vaccine in an effort to raise awareness.

A Latino Decisions poll conducted in early October for the national advocacy organization UnidosUS found that 82 percent of Hispanics said they would trust their doctor or medical provider as a source on vaccine safety information.

Carrasquillo, the University of Miami doctor, who already had the first dose of the vaccine, is the principal investigator in a statewide outreach program that received a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to engage minority communities about the vaccine. The effort, called the Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against Covid-19 Disparities, includes a diverse group of experts at multiple universities throughout the state.

NewYork-Presbyterian recently launched the Dalio Center for Health Justice, and it will be working closely with community-based organizations as the vaccine is rolled out to educate and raise awareness.

"We're doing a lot of community presentations and a lot of community forums," Carrasquillo said.

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