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Latinos Getting Vaccinated At Lower Rates Tied To Fear, Mistrust

Some of the world's largest vaccine-makers hope to bolster public confidence in a yet-to-arrive COVID-19 vaccine, pledging to follow strict safety protocols in the rush to respond to the pandemic. Here, a nurse practitioner administers a dose of flu vaccine in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Some of the world's largest vaccine-makers hope to bolster public confidence in a yet-to-arrive COVID-19 vaccine, pledging to follow strict safety protocols in the rush to respond to the pandemic. Here, a nurse practitioner administers a dose of flu vaccine in Key Biscayne, Fla.

Fleming Lopez, 46, says he opened Mi Pequeña Centro-American Restaurant and Supermarket in Panama City about a year before the first coronavirus cases were reported in the U.S. “Things were very bad,” he said. Business fell by about 60% and some employees were let go, Lopez said.

“Now things are getting a little better,” he said. “We’re getting the employees back to work.”

Lopez says he looks forward to the day when everyone who wants the coronavirus vaccine can get it. “Hopefully — with this vaccine — things will get even better," he said. "The economy will go back on, and we will go back to business the way we were before.”

But not everyone who eats and shops at Lopez's market shares his eagerness to get the shot. It's not uncommon for him to hear about myths and conspiracy theories about the vaccine.

“They think that this was something made in the laboratory to make people sick so more people can die," he said. "Some people believe maybe it was in the United States who built the virus, so it’s different stories that you hear."

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 dashboard shows about 15 percent of Florida’s vaccines have been administered to Hispanic residents, even though they make up more than a quarter of the state’s population, 37 percent of COVID-19 cases and a quarter of coronavirus deaths in the state.

Valerie Crowder
Fleming Lopez, owner of Mi Pequena Restaurant and Supermarket in Panama City, says he always wears a mask and gloves when interacting with customers on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021.

Organizations that work with minority groups say they’ll continue to work hard through the next several months to make sure vaccine hesitancy doesn’t keep people from boosting their immunity to the virus, which has killed almost 28,000 people statewide.

A Pew Research Center survey taken in late November reveals almost 40 percent of Americans reported they either probably or definitely wouldn’t get the shot. Public health experts have expressed concern that high rates of vaccine hesitancy could make herd immunity more difficult to achieve.

“If that plays out in terms of vaccinations, then we’re not going to hit whatever that sweet spot is. It used to be 75 percent," said Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, a research-clinician at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "Now some are saying it’s 90 percent vaccination of the community that we need.”

Vaccine hesitancy has declined overall since the fall. That’s in part due to community outreach programs educating the public. Carrasquillo’s team is leading a statewide coalition to understand people’s concerns about the vaccine and correct misinformation about the shot’s safety and effectiveness.

“A lot of people are shocked to learn that scientists have been working on these vaccines against COVID for many years. It didn’t just come yesterday," Carrasquillo said. "People forget that people started getting these vaccines in the vaccine study several months ago. So we have good data showing the effectiveness.”

Focus groups have shed light on different conspiracy theories circulating about the vaccine, including alleged secret government plots to implant tracking devices into everyone’s arm or cause sterility in minorities, Carrasquillo said. “A lot of people are very concerned that the virus is somehow created by the government and the vaccines are a second part of a government plot to somehow put a kill switch in you.”

Carrasquillo says the mistrust that many people have in the health care system is rooted in limited access to care and personal experience.

“Native Americans, Latinos - we all have our stories of major ethical issues,” Carrasquillo said. “Many of them are poorly treated by health systems."

He says boosting vaccine trust within minority populations requires some degree of cultural competency. For example, I’m Latino. I would have very little credibility going into the Haitian community and talking about stuff," he said. "You need local leaders from that community talking about issues.”

Neza Xiuhtecutli is the general coordinator at the Farmworkers Association of Florida. The statewide union’s members are mostly Latino and Haitian. He says he’s also heard about conspiracy theories circulating via WhatsApp, which allows users connected to WiFi to send free text messages internationally.

“This disinformation is being passed around faster than we’re actually doing anything to counteract it.”

Xiuhtecutli says more vaccine education is needed in Spanish, Creole and English to dispel myths about the virus.

He says that’s why the statewide union has worked with the University of Florida, Farmworker Justice and other groups, including the Rural Women's Health Project in Gainesville.

"They’ve made some literature that we can also distribute through WhatsApp to some of our members and people who form part of our community.”

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.