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DENVER – Gov. Polis and state health officials have been saying for months they’re serious about getting the COVID-19 vaccine to communities hardest-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, but data at the state and local level show their commitment to that cause has been lackluster at best.
Numbers from the state’s COVID-19 website show Latinos – who make up nearly 27% of all COVID-19 cases across the state – have only been vaccinated at around 9%, compared to whites, who make up 43% of all COVID-19 cases and who have been vaccinated at around 71%.
That disparity in vaccine equity doesn’t stop at the state level. Data from Denver Public Health shows Latinos in Denver, for example, make up nearly half of all COVID-19 cases (47.2%) but have only been vaccinated at about 26% compared to whites, who make up nearly 39% of all cases, but who have been vaccinated at about 60%.
During a news conference Thursday, state health officials admitted they still had “a lot of work to do” when it comes to vaccinating people of color across the state.
“We know there are many factors that contributed to this, including access and connection with primary care and providers, and we also know that we started with our health care workers and teachers, and that helped to widen the gap – as we know that those are largely white occupations,” said Brandy Emily, the deputy director of immunization branch for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), who explained the hope now is to eliminate barriers to access as well as misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine which has played a role in uptake among Blacks, Indigenous and other peoples of color (BIPOC).
Locally, the City and County of Denver has been working with community partners to give Latinos and other people of color access to the vaccine.
In mid-February, for example, Denver opened up its first of four community vaccination sites at the Montbello Rec. Center. The city also partnered with Lyft to take people to and from vaccination centers (all you have to do is call 211 and someone will set you up to get a ride), and the state recently made Ball Arena a walk-up vaccination site where no appointments are necessary to get the vaccine.
Despite all these efforts, vaccination uptake needs to improve among Latinos and other communities of color, something the city recognizes and says it’s working to improve.
“We do want to acknowledge that we know and recognize the gap, we recognize our community is vaccinated at a lower percentage, and that is why we're so committed on identifying the barriers,” said Loaitza Esquilín García, a spokesperson with the Denver Office of Emergency Management.
Some of the barriers include difficulties with registering for a COVID-19 vaccine, specifically for Latinos who may not be computer savvy and, therefore, have problems accessing information online, she says. Expanding hours and days at community vaccination sites is another area Esquilín García says might be another barrier to get people vaccinated.
So, will the city be turning those community vaccination sites into walk-up sites, like the state has done at Ball Arena?
“That is part of our process right now of expanding days and hours. It's part of our strategy – we're not there yet, but that is what we're working towards,” Esquilín García said. “We do recognize registration is a hurdle.”
A hurdle that is pretty much nonexistent at Servicios de La Raza, which has been serving the Latino community in the Denver metro area for nearly 50 years.
Founded by community activists involved in the local Chicano movement of the 60s and 70s, the nonprofit provides many services to Latinos and BIPOC populations, including health care.
“We are trusted in our communities by the native Spanish speakers and our native English speakers, and as a result of that we have not, in our efforts to vaccinate our communities in Denver, had that problem of people not wanting to be vaccinated,” said executive director Rudy Gonzales.
Gonzales says it’s that relationship between the community and Servicios de La Raza which have helped them break down the barriers of hesitancy and vaccinate nearly 3,000 Latinos across the Denver metro area and beyond.
“One of our main strategies is to talk to the people in their language and in a way that they understand,” said Dr. Ricardo González, who works at Servicios de La Raza. “We are also listening to the community and listening to those small conversations that they will not give you in a survey, but they will come and tell you directly because they trust you.”
It’s that trust between the community and community leaders, González says, that helps put Latinos at ease when it comes to getting the vaccine.
“People in our communities tend to trust the faith leaders, the community organizations like Servicios de La Raza,” said González. “I think that the other part, the other problem that we have is lack of reliable information, or an excessive amount of unreliable information, going on in their social media.”
Which is why Gonzales says it’s important that community organizations work to find ways to reach their communities in a way that really speaks to them.
“One of our messages is, ‘Hazlo por amor’ — Do it for love. Love of your family, love of yourself, love of your neighbors, love of your community, love of your world,” Gonzales said. “We're a very communal culture, and we have very big families and very big extended families, and we love to come together often. We're a very social culture. And so, it's important that we take care of each other and this is an important way to do just that.”
That message of community and how COVID-19 affects not only the community as a whole, but the individual on a personal level, is one Charlene Barrientos said needs to be front and center when fighting the battle against vaccine hesitancy in the Latino community.
“One of the things that I really stress, is that when we protect ourselves and we look at prevention and we're protected, you know, by the vaccine or by getting vaccinated, then we're also protecting our families, and in the Latino community family is very important, and so … it's bigger than just the individual, it is about the family and protecting the family, from the children all the way to the elders,” said Barrientos, whose work as a community engagement manager at the Colorado School of Public Health has put her in the frontlines of delivering that message to the Latino community and other communities of color.
Her advice to state and local health experts trying to get Latinos and other BIPOC populations?
It’s “really important to engage the community and have people have access in their communities, build trust with people that belong (in the community). And so that's part of the conversation and being present, transparent, and not making any promises that they can't keep,” Barrientos said, adding hesitancy around the vaccine “doesn't always mean that people will not get the vaccine. Sometimes they just need more information.”
But even Gonzales admits Servicios de La Raza can only do so much to combat vaccine hesitancy, which may come in the form of lack of access for many Latinos and other BIPOC individuals.
“There’s a lot of public clinics that don’t have a bilingual capability and so people are unable to access it who are monolingual and are Spanish-speaking, or don't understand and just won't go,” Gonzales said. “The other (issue) is transportation. Clinics need to go where our people are – in mobile home parks, public housing – and start really concentrating and thinking about work schedules and when those clinics should be operating.”
While the state hasn’t released any plans on expanded hours of operation at community vaccination sties, they did say Thursday they’ll be focusing more on getting the vaccine to the people instead of having the people come to the vaccine.
The state’s Vaccine Equity Outreach Team announced Thursday it was launching a mobile clinic in the Denver metro area which will serve Montbello on Thursday and the area off Colfax and Chambers in Aurora on Friday.
“We’re excited about the mobile clinics,” said Maisha Fields, the team’s community outreach lead. “We’re excited about going to where people need services – barber shops, grocery stores, Taco Bells – where we know we have the hardest hit population of essential workers who often times can’t take time off to get vaccinated.”
The state also has a fleet of mobile vaccine buses to get people access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Two were deployed on April 2 (one in northeast Colorado, the other in the southeastern part of the state), and a third will take the road this weekend, touring the Western Slope to start. A final bus will launch next week that will hit southwestern Colorado, state health officials said.
From their part, Servicios de La Raza will be traveling to Fort Morgan this Saturday to administer 1,000 shots of the vaccine to people in the area. They will be doing another vaccination event for Guatemalan nationals on May 1 and will also be in Ft. Lupton on May 8 to administer 300 shots to people there. Another event is planned in Lafayette on May 9 to administer 500 shots to residents in that community.
While you wait to get vaccinated though, state and health officials say it’s important to keep wearing your mask, keep practicing good social distancing, avoid crowded spaces, and get tested if you have symptoms or if you’ve come into contact with someone who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
“Unfortunately, we are going through a very difficult time. … We are living with a very deadly disease. The best solution that we have right now is the vaccine. So, just get vaccinated,” said Dr. González. “As Rudy was saying, ‘hazlo por amor.’”