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In South Florida, Latinos fight a low COVID booster rate — and misinformation

Booster Boosters: Latino residents in Homestead getting  medical information about COVID-19 vaccine booster shots at Roby George Park last year from the Mexican American Council's Vacúnate (Vaccinate Yourself) project.
Courtesty Mexican American Council
Latino residents in Homestead get medical information about COVID-19 vaccine booster shots at Roby George Park last year from the Mexican American Council's Vacúnate (Vaccinate Yourself) project.

Latinos are still more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID — so doctors and activists hope younger, more educated voices can convince the vulnerable to get vaccinated.

This winter the U.S. is seeing a new spike in COVID-19 cases, and so doctors are urging people to get new vaccine booster shots for the dangerous respiratory virus — which has killed almost 1.2 million Americans since the pandemic started four years ago.

Given Americans' COVID fatigue, though, raising booster participation has been a struggle. And it's an especially tough sell in the Latino community: Health experts fear Latinos have suffered an inordinate share of those COVID cases and deaths in no small part because they've long had the country’s worst COVID vaccine and vaccine booster rate — as low as 4%.

That's something Adelia Hernandez of Florida City knows all too well.

“It’s based on the stigma that's developed in the Latino community," says Hernandez, 22, who is the U.S.-born daughter of Mexican migrant workers.

"You hear people in the community saying all the time: ‘Oh, no, like,  why are you getting that shot? You don’t need that. Oh, that’s very unsafe.’ There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

Hernandez says she’s seen the frightening consequences of that misinformation about COVID vaccines up close since the pandemic began.

“I’ve had immediate family members hospitalized for months, and potentially leading to death," she says as her voice trails off and she fights back tears.

"I'm sorry, even to this day it affects us.”

Adelia Hernandez at the Mexican American Council offices in Homestead this month.
Tim Padgett
Adelia Hernandez at the Mexican American Council offices in Homestead this month.

Fortunately, none of Hernandez’s relatives who were hospitalized for COVID died in the end. But the ordeal compelled her to advocate in the Latino community for COVID booster vaccines — and she now coordinates a campaign called Vacúnate, or Vaccinate Yourself, at the nonprofit Mexican-American Council in Homestead.

Vacúnate is one of several partners of a recently launched national COVID booster effort called ¿Y La Vacuna?, directed by the Latino nonprofit UnidosUSin Washington D.C. One of its core strategies is sending younger, more educated Latinos, like Hernandez, out to convince older, more vulnerable members of the community — who often speak only Spanish — to at least learn the facts about the vaccine if not take it.

“We're not trying to shame them or use fear tactics," says Hernandez. "We just want to educate them. And if it’s coming from us, someone that they trust, this has a huge impact — an important connection — because especially for older Latinos, they're lacking sufficient, reliable Spanish-language sources of [COVID vaccine] information.”

That information can range from the simple, such as where and how they can get the booster shots, to deeper questions like how the vaccine works and how to access insurance for them. In Miami-Dade County, Vacúnate presents workshops and information tables at sites like the Redland Market in Homestead, one of the South Florida Latino community's most popular flea markets.

But a big part of the trust Hernandez describes stems from the fact that Latino households often have three or more generations living under the same roof. That means abuelos, or grandparents, often have that stronger connection to nietos, or grandchildren, and younger Latinos in general.

“Many times, families here in South Florida that are Latino, the young person is the one making the translation, the ones explaining the ways of this country," says Eddie Garza, the Mexican American Council's executive director.

"They have incredible weight and influence.”

Health experts say Latinos could have used more of that influence during the worst of the pandemic a few years ago. COVID hit the community disproportionately hard: Latinos represent 20% of the U.S. population but have accounted for more than 25% of the nation's COVID cases; worse, they've been four times more likely than white people to be hospitalized for the virus and twice as likely to die.

Doctors like Dadilia Garcés, an epidemiologist at Miami-Dade College's medical campus who works with the Vacúnate project, point out one reason is that Latinos too often carry COVID risk factors.

“We have issues like diabetes and hypertension,” says Garcés, who was born in Colombia and raised in Venezuela.

"That makes it all the more urgent that Latinos get the COVID vaccine and boosters. I'm very concerned, because without a higher booster rate in our community, we are opening our own Pandora's Box health-wise."

Anti-vax myths

Garcés concedes the social obstacles are heavy. One is the fear that getting the shots could expose Latinos to scrutiny by immigration officials. There's also a self-sufficiency attitude at play that's common among immigrant communities and especially strong among Latinos, says Hernandez — "a mindset that says, 'We've done everything else on our own, we can get through this ourselves, too."

Another, says Garcés, is mistrust of a health system where Latinos often don’t see a lot of … Latinos.

“Especially the very south here in Miami," she says, "the people working in the hospitals are usually more Caucasians, and so then there is also a language barrier.”

But Garcés feels the most onerous problem is disinformation about vaccines in Spanish-language media and social media.

Just last month, for example, conservative talk show host Marián de la Fuente, on the Actualididad Radio station in Miami, invited criticism when she said that there are credible medical studies suggesting "a link between vaccines cause autism in children."

Just about every credible U.S. health expert calls that a total myth. But it’s the sort of rumor that pushes many Latinos into the anti-vax camp, raising their COVID risks.

An UnidosUS representative hands out COVID vaccine information to a Latina resident in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2022 at one of the organization's nationwide mobile tour stops.
An UnidosUS representative hands out COVID vaccine information to a Latina resident in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2022 at one of the organization's nationwide mobile tour stops.

It also doesn't help, say health experts, that as Florida's Latino become more politically conservative, they listen more to Republican leaders like Gov. Ron DeSantis and his controversial Surgeon General, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, who've been strenuously — and, critics insist, untruthfully — discrediting COVID booster vaccines as unnecessary and unsafe.

Joanna Kuttorthara, who heads the COVID vaccine booster project ¿Y la Vacuna? for UnidosUS, agrees the disinformation has been one of the biggest challenges as the project conducts its mobile tours throughout the country.

"I mean, everything from, 'the vaccine puts a chip inside you so the government can monitor you' to 'it damages children's hearts' — it's just a campaign of fear and mistrust that gets amplified especially loudly on Spanish-language social media platforms," says Kuttorthara, who grew up in Mexico City.

Kuttorthara says perhaps the most problematic misinformation coursing through those Spanish-language channels is that because the vaccine doesn’t prevent people from getting the COVID virus, it therefore doesn’t work.

“What the vaccine does, of course, is prevent serious complications, or you getting so sick that you need to be hospitalized, or die," says Kutttorthara.

"So we partner with a lot of influencers to go on these social media platforms and correct a lot of the misinformation out there.”

Federal health data suggest programs like ¿Y la Vacuna? and Vacúnate are raising the Latino COVID booster rate. Kuttorthara says the goal is to eventually get that number above 50%.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.