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These Southern California groups are fighting to close Latino vaccination gaps

Latinos in Orange County face the lowest vaccination rates. Community organizations aim to fix that ahead of another potential winter surge.
Vaccine clinic set up in the parking lot of CalOptima in Orange, Calif
Laura Sanchez holds her 2-month-old son, Lizandro, while receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at a clinic set up in the parking lot of CalOptima in Orange, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2021.Jae C. Hong / AP file

ANAHEIM, Calif. — A Latino Covid-19 vaccination gap in California's third largest county has medical workers and community groups scrambling to close the disparities before the holidays.

Latinos are the second largest demographic group in Orange County, making up 35 percent of the population, but they have the lowest vaccination rate — 21.8 percent —according to OC Health Care Agency data.

A similar worrisome trend persists across the state. Hispanics are the largest ethnic or racial group in the state, but they rank last in vaccinations, with at least 54 percent receiving one dose of a vaccine.

There are numerous factors contributing to the gap, according to Dr. Ilan Shapiro, medical director for health education for AltaMed, a Latino health care provider based in Southern California.

"They're communities working two or three jobs and now they're essential workers and sometimes it's just hard to get an extra day off to get the vaccine," said Shapiro, a Mexican American physician who has been actively involved in Latino health outreach, including nationally and in Mexico. Vaccine misinformation, hesitancy, knowledge gaps and issues around distribution are factors that contribute to the low rates among the county's Latinos, he said.

Despite the fact that vaccines are free of charge, some are unaware that they're available even without health care insurance.

Shapiro fears another potential winter surge, as current positivity cases indicate trends similar to last year.

AltaMed’s efforts to close the gap involve in-person outreach, where they meet with patients and their family members at community events to address any concerns about the vaccine.

Though Shapiro said it was an "honor" to have patients reach out on their own to AltaMed for vaccination information, "it’s even better when we are actually there in the community where they need us.”

Latino Health Access, a nonprofit group in Santa Ana, has been working on Covid outreach since the start of the pandemic.

It has helped administer vaccinations through mobile clinics in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods by partnering with local health care agencies.

Its most effective strategy has been deploying volunteer community workers, or promotores (promoters), to educate the community in popular locations. These promotores engage with people directly and have become trusted sources of information to a community that's been plagued by misinformation.

"We've been having to adapt as we find different needs or different groups that need to be addressed in a very specific manner," said Loreta Ruiz, assistant director for the Latino Health Access Covid-19 response team.

"It takes a few conversations — not only one, but it probably takes some people to have two conversations and then three," to feel comfortable about taking a vaccine, she said.

A new focus: vaccinating children

As groups aim to boost the number of adults and teens in Orange County who are vaccinated, they're now also pivoting to ensure children ages 5 to 11 get the new shot that has been approved.

"Right now, parents want to know more about how safe the vaccine is for their children," Loreta said.

Latino Health Access is building on the Covid informational sessions it has been holding for parents and families since the start of the pandemic. For children, it has created a coloring activity book to educate them on Covid, preventable safety measures and the vaccine.

It partnered with the OC Department of Education office, which enabled it to distribute the book on a mass scale.

The strategy has been effective.

"Children under 11 years old, but who are conscious about the virus and the vaccine as a way of being protected, they want to get vaccinated," Loreta said. "We know many parents who want to vaccinate their children, and they're ready for it."

Increased vaccinations in children would help mitigate transmission points, breakthrough cases and fewer Covid mutations, Shapiro said.

In California, parents can register their children for vaccinations by visiting the state's MyTurn portal. Orange County residents may soon schedule appointments through Othena. Pharmacies like CVS will also offer appointments.

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