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Addressing vaccine fears as Latinos fall behind in COVID-19 vaccinations


(NEW YORK) — As the delta variant continues to ravage communities across the country, Hispanic populations in many states have been left behind in the race to get the country vaccinated, according to Salud America, a national Latino-focused research organization.

Health experts say misinformation, fear and a lack of access to vaccination sites have contributed to the lower rates of vaccination — despite the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Latino community.

According to Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization focusing on national health issues, Black and Hispanic people are less likely than their white counterparts to have received a vaccine, leaving the unvaccinated members of the group at an elevated risk of contracting the virus.

“It’s pretty much life or death if they are choosing not to vaccinate themselves because of myths,” said Arturo Vargas Bustamante, a professor of Health Policy and Management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Health experts are pleading with people to learn more about the science, unlearn the myths and overcome the fears concerning the vaccine.

Activists, like Frankie Miranda, of the non-profit Latino advocacy group the Hispanic Federation, are also calling on local officials to provide culturally competent information to help stop the spread of coronavirus among Latinos, who may have a mistrust of the U.S. government.

Latinos and the virus

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 70% of adults in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

State-by-state percentages of Latino vaccination rates show the disparities in vaccination — as of Aug. 2, only about 26.9% of Latinos in Alabama have received at least one dose, according to Salud America, which analyzes state and CDC data. In Tennessee, 31.3% of Latinos have had at least one dose. In Texas, it’s 32% of Latinos.

However, more than 90% of Latinos in Vermont and more than 60% of Latinos in Virginia have received at least one dose, Salud America reports.

And in the last two weeks, people of color are being vaccinated more than white people, according to the CDC — which could be attributed to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths among unvaccinated populations.

Latinos make up 28.5% of overall confirmed cases in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic, the CDC reports.

Bustamante recommended that trusted Latino leaders and figures partner with local governments and health agencies to get the word out about vaccines, their efficiency and the importance of community health to stop the spread.

Miranda blamed the lack of Spanish-language resources and outreach to communities and said that the lack of access and awareness can cause confusion for many.

“It is okay to feel anxious, to feel nervous about it,” said Miranda. “By asking questions or going to a community-based organization in their communities, to ask these questions, many of these worries will go away and they will understand that this is the best way to protect themselves and their families.”

Vaccination misconceptions, myths and fears

“Chisme mata,” said Fernandez, which means “gossip kills” in Spanish. He and other health experts warned against believing posts, articles and memes from non-reputable sources.

One common fear about the vaccine that some people have heard is that there may be unknown long-term effects. But experts, like American Public Health Association President Jose Ramon Fernandez, said that there’s no need to fear long-term effects because they have rarely, if ever, occurred with past vaccines.

The Food and Drug Administration puts each vaccine candidate through a rigorous safety and efficacy process before granting approval. And safety monitoring continues after approval as well.

All three current COVID-19 vaccines granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) by the FDA have undergone three phases of testing, including large trials that lasted several months. The CDC says currently authorized vaccines are safe and effective and Pfizer expects to apply for full approval next month.

“We have over [200] years of experience with vaccines, and there’s no record at all of having long-term effects of a vaccine,” said Fernandez.

Skepticism on the speed of vaccine production, and how quickly it was made available, is also easily explained, according to the CDC.

Other diseases caused by coronaviruses in the past are closely related to the COVID-19 virus. Because researchers had been developing vaccines for those diseases when the novel coronavirus was discovered, the basis for this vaccine was already in the works, according to the CDC.

Combined with billions of dollars funding expedited research and millions of volunteers working on this effort — the vaccine was made faster than normal.

“I know that it’s difficult to feel confident about science, especially right now during the pandemic where the advice given by scientists changes so regularly,” said Bustamante.

“You need to understand that science evolves,” he said. “Knowledge is not one static product. We, as scientists, contribute to science and see how trends evolve over time, and that many times makes us change our guidelines.”

Among the many false narratives about vaccines is they can cause problems with fertility.

“It has been completely debunked,” Fernandez said. “It’s an absolute lie. There’s no evidence anywhere around the world where this has been proven to be true.”

Given substantial data supporting the safety of vaccines, the CDC now strongly recommends that people who are pregnant and considering becoming pregnant to get vaccinated.

Another fear about the vaccine is that there are other cures to COVID-19, or that a healthy lifestyle is sufficient in protecting people from the illness. That is false, said Dr. Ramon Tallaj from SOMOS Community Care, a network of health providers in New York City.

He said that doctors, scientists, and public health experts believe that the vaccine, alongside other COVID-19 safety precautions like masking and social distancing, is the best protection against the virus and drastically protects the infected from severe illness.

“Somebody told me that they prefer the natural immunity … but natural immunity means that 600,000 people die in the United States,” said Tallaj about the growing COVID-19 death toll in the United States. “The only reason why humans live so long now … is because of vaccines and antibiotics.”

Some people are also in fear of getting symptoms after receiving the vaccine and may have to take off work or be disciplined by their bosses, Fernandez and Tallaj said.

But side effects like headache and fevers are temporary, and they don’t happen to everyone. Meanwhile, many employers will give workers a paid day off to rest after getting the shots, so public health officials recommend asking employers what options exist to take time off.

“It’s in their interest to make sure that you’re healthy,” said Fernandez. “Do it for your mother. Do it for your children. Do it for your friends. Do it for your co-workers. Do it for your community.”

And for undocumented immigrants or uninsured Latinos, there is no need to fear — people getting the vaccine will not be asked about their legal status and insurance isn’t needed. The vaccine is completely free and no one will be billed for it.

“As a Latino man, I’m deeply concerned about the health of our community, and I want to do anything I can to make sure that we have access to accurate information to help people make a decision that they will be happy they made down the line,” Fernandez said.

To find more information, and to find Spanish-language guidance on the vaccine, experts recommend heading to the CDC website for more information, or to the CDC’s vaccine finder to look for vaccination sites nearby.

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