This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.
As co-founder of the Richfield-based charter school Partnership Academy, which serves Latinos, Rosa Herrera is connected with her community and is an important source of information for it.
On any typical weekday, she sends essential COVID-19 information from sources like the local community newspaper El Minnesota de Hoy in mass emails to the more than 800 families with children enrolled in the school. But last month, when the state provided three dozen COVID-19 vaccines to essential staff at the school, Herrera skipped out.
“They chose me at the very beginning to do it, and I said no,” Herrera told Sahan Journal. “I was too scared.”
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Just a few weeks later, however, she changed her mind and got vaccinated. In the days between, she digested information about the vaccine from myriad sources, including from media targeted toward Latinos and from friends and family.
Herrera’s journey from fear to acceptance illustrates how voices from inside immigrant communities are changing the minds and actions of their peers to take advantage of essential health offerings. Often the changes occur little by little. Sometimes it’s through phone calls and text messages. Other times, it’s through social media, traditional community newspapers, and Spanish-lanugage radio stations like El Rey.
In Herrera’s case, she first watched a webinar put together by the government of Mexico City featuring a doctor from Florida giving information about vaccines aimed at people like her.
“There were a lot of questions asked,” Herrera said. “The doctor even said the same thing I said, that she didn’t originally want to get it. It kind of made me feel more comfortable.”
Then, Herrera got word of a vaccine event aimed at people like her and organized by St. Mary’s Health Clinics and M Health Fairview. Her friend, community activist Ruth Evangelista, encouraged Herrera over the phone to come in and take advantage.
Ricardo Manjarrez, who hosts the weekday morning “El Huracan” show on El Rey, said it’s important for people with a platform like him to spread awareness about the vaccine because of widespread misinformation in his community.
The misinformation circulates through social media pages and in some churches, he said, and it’s been going around since well before the vaccine became available, starting with health care workers in December.
“Some people say that coronavirus is not real, and if you get the vaccine, it’s because the government wants to control you and manage your life,” Manjarrez said.
To combat perceptions like these, he talks about the virus and the vaccine on his show every day. He also regularly hosts Latino doctors and medical professionals to give the latest COVID-19 updates.
He refers to them as “friends and people we know.” Among them is Francisco Ramirez, a community engagement manager at the Fairview system. Though his Fairview job focuses completely on community outreach, Ramirez worked as a medical doctor in Mexico before he immigrated to the U.S. in 2004. He said that any community messaging on vaccines must be personalized and show empathy.
“I’m not here to convince anybody,” Ramirez said. “I’m here to build trust, to hear you, to listen to you, and to give you the information that we have.”
People like Herrera are aware of how dreadful the virus can be. In October, she and everyone else living in her Minneapolis home contracted COVID-19.
Hererra, 61, got the mildest case. But her two daughters got severely sick. The worst case came to her older daughter, who is 34 and has asthma. She went to the hospital and was put on a ventilator for five days. Today, Herrera said her daughter is still going to therapy to repair her lungs.
In a way, Herrera’s family experience made her afraid of the vaccine instead of relieved to get it. What if the vaccine reinfected her and made her as sick as her daughter had gotten? Health experts advise people who have already had COVID-19 to still get vaccinated, mainly because reinfection is possible. It’s still unknown to what extent people who’ve already gotten the virus are protected.
In the last few weeks, her fear slowly started to give way. After watching the webinar, she saw her friends and her two daughters get vaccinated and peppered them with questions about how it went and how they felt.
Herrera’s own mother, who is in her 80s, had originally sworn off the vaccine. She changed her mind when her doctor told her she probably wouldn’t be able to travel to Mexico this year without getting one.
Herrera and her mother ended up at a vaccination drive where 200 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were distributed to Latino seniors. Ramirez attended the event to answer questions from anyone who had them. His approach is simple: He cites vaccine data to people from sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, he isn’t pushy when doing so, and he always gives each person he talks with a business card with his contact information on it.
He recalled how one woman in line was very worried that the vaccine would raise her blood pressure levels.
“She said, ‘If that’s the case, I’m not doing it, I’m going to go back home,’ ” Ramirez said.
After explaining that there are no links to the vaccine causing high blood pressure, Ramirez also told the woman that several medical professionals were on hand and would be right next to her while she got the shot in case anything happened. She went on and got her shot.
Another man Ramirez spoke with that day later called him up to ask him for an unrelated favor: He was planning to travel to Mexico after his second dose, and could Ramirez connect him with the Mexican consulate?
“It was amazing, because I just met him and now he trusts me,” Ramirez said.
Manjarrez said he’s seen more Latinos willing to get vaccinated in recent weeks as well. One of the biggest influences, he said, is the toll COVID-19 has taken on his community.
“The community was realizing that COVID-19 was real because we’ve had it,” he said. “We were seeing a lot of people suffering with the virus.”