Doubling down on vaccinating minority communities

Mothers are the decision-makers in Latino families

WE ARE TURNING the corner in our battle against a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic: 158 million Americans, almost 48 percent of the population, are fully vaccinated, while restrictions are being lifted across the country as COVID-19 cases and deaths drop to levels not seen since states began tracking such data. Massachusetts enjoys one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.

As we celebrate such remarkable milestones, we must remind ourselves that these accomplishments haven’t benefitted everyone equally. Despite efforts to reach hard-hit populations, communities of color are continuing to experience vaccination rates that are considerably less than the overall population. There are myriad reasons: misinformation about vaccine efficacy and cost, inability to take time off from work, concern about immigration status, to name a few.

The impact is undeniable. Statewide, nearly four out of five (78.9 percent) Commonwealth residents have received their first dose, yet the vaccination rate for Latinos is 45 percent and Blacks is 44 percent.  Stata data also show COVID infection rates are three times higher for Hispanic residents than they are for white residents. With 859,100 Latinos in Massachusetts, this means we cannot let our guard down until the remaining 472,505 Latinos are vaccinated.

And given how we arrived here, not letting our guard down is critical. During the pandemic, resilient members of our most vulnerable communities–disproportionately essential workers– put themselves on the line and in harm’s way every day and in many industries (including health care, food services, etc.) so that we could all weather the COVID storm. Their efforts facilitated our ability to work from home or get our food and other necessities delivered to our doorstep. They also delivered care and key services for those who got sick or were hospitalized. These communities paid a huge price for their service, suffering the brunt of hospitalizations and deaths during the surges. Yet everyday they got up, went to work, took public transportation—like they have always done—to provide for their families.

As a society, the least we can do is ensure that as we emerge from the pandemic, we do it all together – with vaccine equity. Achieving vaccine equity doesn’t mean we treat these communities as disempowered individuals who require special treatment. But it does mean we acknowledge their resilience and honor their sacrifice while understanding the challenges they still face, including accessing the vaccine. For most Latinos, taking time off work to get a shot is problematic, so vaccine equity means taking the vaccine to where they are – parks, neighborhoods, churches.

We have seen increased efforts to take the vaccine where Latinos are, thanks to public and private sector investments and innovative strategies to improve vaccine access. For instance, mobile community messengers, COVID testing, and vaccination efforts were deployed by Mass General Brigham, in partnership with a Latino-owned firm, DPV Transportation. Tufts Health Plan and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care added another Latino-owned business, communications firm Archipelago Solutions Group, to assist DPV in delivering mobile vaccinations in collaboration with local community health centers, East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, and Holyoke Health Center.

Beth Israel Lahey Health prioritized vaccination appointment scheduling outreach to patients who get their care at its community health centers and who live in 11 communities that were hardest hit by COVID. These initiatives targeted Latino and Black majority communities, including Chelsea, East Boston, Everett, Roxbury, Dorchester, and Holyoke. In the case of the Tufts/Harvard Pilgrim effort, leaders from the Boston Foundation’s Latino Equity Fund played a pivotal role in identifying the opportunity, developing the concept, and connecting the stakeholders involved to make the “Mobile Vax” initiative possible. To date, thousands of Latinos have been vaccinated in their neighborhoods because of these efforts.

Now is the time to double down on our investments in creative ways to vaccinate hard-hit communities, particularly as we begin to vaccinate children. According to Pew Research, the most common age for Latinos is 11, compared to 58 for whites. Almost 40 percent of Latinos in the US are under 21 years old; that means as the age limit for vaccinations drops, the importance of connecting with Latino families and caregivers will only grow.

Connecting with Latino families is one thing, gaining their trust is another. To increase vaccine confidence for childhood vaccination, we must work with the decision-makers in the Latino family – the mothers. A recent survey from researchers at Harvard and Northeastern showed that mothers are more hesitant than fathers to get their kids vaccinated against COVID-19; 27 percent of mothers said they were “extremely unlikely” to vaccinate their children, compared with just 11 percent of fathers. We need to provide culturally adapted, accurate information, and resources to overcome hesitancy about childhood vaccination.

Meet the Author

Juan Fernando Lopera

Co-chair/Chief diversity, equity, and inclusion office, Latino Equity Fund/Beth Israel Lahey Health
Meet the Author

Joseph Betancourt

Member/Senior vice president equity and community health, Latino Equity Health, Massachusetts General Hospital
Yes, we are turning the corner in our combat against COVID, but it’s time to leave this insidious disease in our rearview mirror. The only way to achieve that is to step on the gas with vaccine equity and access – for all.  It’s the least we can do, and not too much to ask.

Juan Fernando Lopera is the co-chair of the Latino Equity Fund and chief diversity, equity & inclusion officer for Beth Israel Lahey Health. Dr. Joseph Betancourt is a member of the Latino Equity Committee and senior vice president, equity and community health, Massachusetts General Hospital.