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Health Promoters Help Latinos Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19


Vaccination rates are rising among Latinos in this country. Why is that when they're stuck in other communities? NPR's Maria Godoy went to Langley Park, Md., to find out what's been working there.


MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: It's a hot day at the busy farmer's market right next to the Mega Mart Latino grocery store in Langley Park, Md.


GODOY: Dolores Fontalvo is scanning the crowd, looking for someone she can help. At 72, Fontalvo is friendly, indefatigable and a foot soldier in the state's effort to fully vaccinate its Latino population.

DOLORES FONTALVO: (Speaking Spanish).

GODOY: Her long braids sways as she bounces up to a woman waiting in line. Even though Fontalvo's wearing a mask, she smiles at the woman with her eyes.

FONTALVO: (Through interpreter) Hi, love. Did you get vaccinated yet? (Laughter) I thought not.

GODOY: The woman tells her she's not sure where to go and hasn't had time to get vaccinated. Fontalvo offers details on nearby vaccine clinics staffed by bilingual workers. Some are open nights and weekends to cater to people who can't get time off work. The woman asks her, do I need an appointment?

FONTALVO: (Through interpreter) Nope. Just give me your name and number, and they'll be expecting you at the clinic. First come, first served.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

GODOY: Fontalvo is one of dozens of volunteer promotoras - literally, health promoters - who work with CASA, a Latino immigrant aid and advocacy group. Her job is to reach out to Latinos, many of them immigrants, to encourage vaccination. She says these days most people are eager for the information, or they've already gotten their shot. But occasionally, the job involves countering misinformation.

FONTALVO: (Through interpreter) People hear negative rumors like, oh, the vaccine contains a microchip, or vaccines kill people.

GODOY: Her answer to that?

FONTALVO: (Through interpreter) Well, all of us are vaccinated, and here we are. We're all healthy. Nothing has happened to us

GODOY: In Maryland, as in the rest of the U.S., vaccination rates for Latinos have lagged behind rates for whites. Neil Sehgal is an assistant professor of health policy at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. He says there have been many reasons for this lag, including no paid time off from work, lack of access to reliable information in Spanish and lack of transportation. But Sehgal says that vaccination gap is now closing.

NEIL SEHGAL: That trend that we're seeing in Maryland, where a greater proportion of Latinos are making up the state's total share of vaccinations, is a good thing. It's the reason that we're seeing that gap close.

GODOY: He says CASA's promotoras are a big reason behind that success.

SEHGAL: When you can get a vaccine from someone in your community, someone that you know and that you have a prior relationship with, you're more likely to.

GODOY: CASA's promotoras have been seeding that relationship with the Latino community for decades, with outreach on long-term issues like diabetes and HIV. Dr. Michelle LaRue is the director of health and human services at CASA. She says when the pandemic struck, the promotoras were well-positioned to help a community left reeling.

MICHELLE LARUE: Our community has suffered not only from COVID but also all the social consequences that have come with COVID - so housing insecurities, food insecurities, financial insecurities due to job losses or hours cut.

GODOY: She says promotoras help spread the word about how to prevent COVID and where to get tested. They also connect people to desperately needed resources, like food and rent assistance. Early on, CASA also recruited promotoras to participate in COVID vaccine trials.

LARUE: We used that to promote the vaccine, so we know for a fact that this vaccine works on us and to try to bridge some of those trust issues that our community may have.

GODOY: Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead heads the state's vaccine equity task force, which partners with CASA. She says the task force homed in on the greater Langley Park region because it had been hit so badly by COVID. She says promotoras have played a critical role in expanding vaccine access.

JANEEN BIRCKHEAD: Our approach is working, and it is that on-the-ground work that we have to continue to do to get into the community. The trusted voice, the person that you may know or the person that you may trust, they're bringing the message to you about the vaccine.

GODOY: Sehgal of the University of Maryland says the promotora model is also being used increasingly in Southern California.

SEHGAL: But nationally, I think CASA and CASA's partners are really leading the way.


GODOY: Back at the supermarket, Dolores Fontalvo is doing way more than helping people get vaccinated. When shopper Antonia Aquino approaches with a question, the conversation quickly turns personal. Aquino starts crying as she recalls her own bout with COVID last year which landed her in the hospital.

ANTONIA AQUINO: (Through interpreter, crying) Every time I remember, I cry. I said goodbye to my children. I lost my job.

GODOY: She says she now faces a pile of unpaid bills, and she still has lingering health issues. Fontalvo listens sympathetically and offers Aquino words of comfort before giving her a phone number she can call for financial and mental health assistance. She says she often sees people suffering because they're lonely and don't have support.

FONTALVO: (Through interpreter) Everyone has problems, but you have to find a way to overcome them. You have to find a way to keep going because life goes on, and life is beautiful.

GODOY: Fontalvo has been a promotora for nearly 18 years. When I ask how much longer she can keep going, she says, until my body gives out.

Maria Godoy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YONDERLING'S "ADRIFT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.