Meet The People On The Front Lines Of LA’s Latino Vaccination Efforts
One recent weekday morning, Susana Moncada and her husband Jose Luis Torres made their rounds. Dressed in bright blue T-shirts and armed with fliers and a clipboard, they walked down Alvarado Street.
Moncada approached a young woman near the Metro station entrance, across from MacArthur Park.
“Good morning, señorita,” Moncada began in Spanish, explaining that she was working for Clínica Romero, a nearby clinic, and for the county.
“Have you been vaccinated yet?” Moncada asked.
The woman, Martha Vargas Cano, nodded yes.
“Muchisimas gracias!” Moncada exclaimed. “ How many have you had?”
“Both,” said Vargas Cano.
Moncada told her she ought to get a booster shot next — and that she could get one at the clinic, a few blocks away, at no cost.
Vargas Cano didn’t object. She confided that not long ago, she got sick.
“I developed a bad cough, and I could hardly breathe,” she said, and while she wasn’t sure what she had, “it would have been worse if I weren’t vaccinated.”
After another hearty thank-you, Moncada and her husband kept moving, spreading the word to get vaccinated.
‘A Real Force’
The two of them work as “promotores,” health promoters, for Clínica Romero, which serves mostly Latino patients at two L.A. locations. The clinic is one of several organizations L.A. County contracted with last fall as part of its Community Health Worker Outreach Initiative in communities most affected by the virus.
Promotores — also referred to as promotoras, because many are women — are a longtime staple in L.A.’s Latino communities. For years they have knocked on doors and walked the streets doing outreach on things ranging from nutrition to managing chronic illness.
Now, in the fight against COVID-19, their work is critical, said Stephanie Lemus, director of community affairs and advocacy for Clínica Romero. The clinic currently has about 30 promotores working on vaccine and other pandemic-related outreach.
“The lived experiences of the promotoras, them being able to give their life examples, their real examples of how they got vaccinated, or what happened to their family members when they got COVID … that is a real force,” Lemus said.
These lay workers connect with people on a personal level, she said, in a way that’s culturally relevant.
“Even though it seems so simple, it is really powerful,” Lemus said, “because they feel that they are getting information from someone that they can trust, and that comes from their community.”
Statewide, Latinos remain California’s least-vaccinated group: According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 57% of Latinos in the state had received at least one dose of vaccine as of the end of November. It’s only slightly better in L.A. County: as of early December, 60% of Latino residents had received at least one dose, followed by 55% of Black residents. The countywide vaccination average is 68%.
Vaccination challenges for Latinos in L.A. are many, health experts say. Some people don’t know the vaccines are free. Some work multiple jobs and can’t schedule time off.
“A lot of people understand perfectly well that they need the vaccines,” said Dr. Ilan Shapiro, medical director of health and wellness education at AltaMed Health Services, a community health network that serves mostly Latino patients. “But the work part of it is very hard to achieve, and that is one of the problems we are having.”
Some people have bought into conspiracy theories they’ve seen on social media or heard word of mouth. And others are just plain scared.
Fears, Rumors, Myths
Dr. Ruth Lindo, a pediatrician at Clínica Romero, said some families she’s seen are alarmed by reports on television: they’ll mention things like the rare incidents of heart inflammation that received press coverage earlier this year, something experts say is unusual to begin with and typically resolves quickly.
For the most part, Lindo said, conspiracy theories like the ubiquitous “microchip” myth aren’t as widespread among her patients as are rumors that start with “a small grain of truth.”
For example, she said, there’s a widely circulated myth that began with some vaccinated women observing a slight change in their menstrual cycles afterward. This evolved to where now, Lindo gets fearful patients asking if the vaccine will make their children infertile.
“It’s hard to fight a rumor like that, because since there’s absolutely no scientific basis, there’s not going to be any studies refuting a phenomenon that doesn’t exist,” she said.
Interestingly, Lindo said, it’s the older, first-generation immigrant patients who tend to be the most vaccine-friendly, while younger, more U.S.-acculturated patients have expressed to her the most vaccine hesitancy.
“This is a very new phenomenon in our community, and it’s mostly starting with the young people … who see things on social media,” she said.
‘Not For Me’
Walking the streets around MacArthur Park, Susana Moncada has heard plenty of excuses since COVID-19 vaccines became available.
“I try to find a way to soften people up and find out why they haven’t gotten the vaccine,” she said.
This particular morning, she didn’t have to go far. As she and Torres headed toward Wilshire, they stopped at a street vendor’s makeshift booth, where a man sold cell phone cases — and face masks.
Moncada introduced herself, but the man behind the booth interrupted before she could finish her question.
“We’re against the vaccine,” he protested. “They’re killing people with that.”
The man, Marcos Rodriguez, told her he’s afraid the vaccine will lead to more COVID-19 infections as people “drop their guard” — which is not true. He also ticked off a list of very rare side effects he feared.
Moncada told him she respected his opinion, but countered with facts about the vaccines being safe and effective.
“I’ve had all three of my shots,” she assured him.
Rodriguez told Moncada he gets tested regularly, and he wears a mask. He squirted his hands with a bottle of alcohol to demonstrate that he takes precautions.
“Why not just go ahead and get the vaccine?” Moncada asked.
“No,” Rodriguez said. “Because I’m not sure it’s for me.”
In the end, she left him some fliers with facts about COVID-19 vaccines and kept going.
‘What Convinced Me Was Fear’
Moncada knows she can’t change everyone’s mind. However, “we have to keep up the fight,” she said, “because it is a service to the community.”
She and Torres crossed the street into the park. It was almost lunchtime now, and some food vendors were setting up.
It was here they saw a welcome sight — a man wearing his vaccine card on a lanyard around his neck.
“Oh look, you have your third one! Congratulations!” Moncada laughed.
The man, Israel Rodriguez, said that for him, the decision was easy: He’s 57 and has high blood pressure.
“What convinced me was fear,” he said, “that if I got COVID, how would I do? Would I die? And I thought, it’s better to get it.”
Torres jotted down his number, and the couple moved on. It was still early, and they had a lot of work to do.