‘You love me? Get the vaccine’: In this MN town, one-on-one conversations play a key role in COVID-19 shots

A young woman gets a vaccine at a table.
Austin, Minn., High School student Elsi Yesenia Flores, 17, prepares to get her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine May 28. She was initially worried about getting the shot for fear it would make her feel sick. But seeing her mother get the vaccine helped convince her to get one, too.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Updated: 10:29 a.m.

On a scorching day in June, Miguel Garate wandered around the 4th Avenue Fest in Austin, telling anyone who will listen that county public health nurses were giving out free COVID-19 vaccines nearby.

He said the case he makes to friends, family and neighbors who haven’t gotten a shot comes down to love.

“I ask them, ‘You love me like I love you?’ ” he said. “Get the vaccine if it is true that you love me.”

Garate isn't a local official — he's not even a health care provider. He's just one of those guys in this city of about 25,000 whom everyone seems to know.

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The state won’t meet its goal of vaccinating 70 percent of Minnesotans 16 and older by July 1. And to understand all the challenges — and tiny victories — that come with inoculating the public, look no further than this city in southeastern Minnesota, where officials are leaning on longstanding partnerships and trusted community leaders like Garate to get more people vaccinated.

People fill a park.
People fill Mill Pond Park on a warm summer night for Austin's summer kickoff on June 16.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

Garate works in the admissions office at Riverland Community College in Albert Lea. But over the years, since moving here from Mexico in 1997, he's also become an informal ambassador to the area's Spanish-speaking population on a host of issues.

On this day, Garate is talking up the vaccine, hoping to find people in the crowd who haven't gotten one yet. He says for his community, hit hard by the virus, it’s a matter of life and death. 

"We lost people from our community. It was very sad,” he said. 

Garate is just one person in a constellation of trusted community leaders, local officials, school advisers, businesses and health care professionals who are working together to chip away at the roughly 37 percent of Mower County's population of people 16 and older who haven't gotten shots yet. 

It's a strategy built on years of collaboration among public health, Mayo Clinic, the school district and other community members aimed at welcoming newcomers from all over the world in this increasingly diverse community. 

Longstanding relationships, trusted leaders

In Austin, about a quarter of the population is Hispanic, Asian or Black, and behind the numbers are families who came here from places like Mexico, Myanmar and South Sudan, many attracted to jobs at one of the area’s two large meatpacking plants.  

County community health specialist Chris Weis said vaccinating Austin's immigrant communities has been challenging for a host of reasons.

"Our top two major concerns are, No. 1, 'But I'm not sick, so why do I get a vaccine if I'm not sick?’ The other one would be, 'I don't want to get sick from the vaccine,’ ” she said. 

Weis said that many worry that if they feel ill after getting the shot, they'll miss work — and miss out on a paycheck as a result. 

Some would rather rely on unproven home remedies if they fall ill. Others fear vaccines might lead to infertility, which they don’t. Others believe the shots will cost them money, but they are free

Vaccine hesitancy is a challenge everywhere — around the state and around the country, including white, U.S.-born communities. Some of those trends are evident in Mower County's vaccination numbers. 

People sit under a tent before getting vaccinated.
Daylynn Alm of Albert Lea looks over information on the Moderna vaccine before getting a shot on June 16 at a summer kickoff event in Austin. Overcoming some initial hesitation, Alm was reassured by a group of Mower County Health nurses. Nurses registering residents and giving the vaccines are, from left, Chris Weis, Molly Conley and Deb Brehmer.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

The county’s public health department has fully vaccinated only 24 percent of the county's Hispanic community and only 34 percent of the area's Asian community.

But Austin has an advantage: longstanding relationships between health and public officials and the immigrant communities they serve — relationships they leaned into early in the pandemic. 

When COVID-19 cases started showing up in Minnesota, Mayo Clinic and county officials convened a committee of leaders from the area's immigrant communities to find out what they needed and what they were confused about. 

"We looked to that group to help guide us. We asked them what the hesitancies might be," said Sara Lee, who does community engagement for Mayo Clinic in Austin. "We were able to work with them to really ask them questions, take their feedback and taking action from there."

Those efforts led to things like free mask distribution, pop-up vaccine clinics and accurate information in a variety of languages to help debunk common myths about the vaccines, said Lee.

"Whatever myth they had, no matter how outlandish it may seem, it was still valid because it was of concern to someone enough to not get the vaccine,” Lee said. 

Mower County has also made its vaccines widely available and convenient. Early on, the county brought shots to workers at the local meatpacking plants.

But as demand for the vaccine has tapered off, Weis said most vaccine clinics emerge from specific conversations with community leaders. 

“Now it's word of mouth,” Weis said. “They're like, 'Can you come out to this specific part of town? That's where they feel the most safe, and they would like you to come there to do the vaccine clinic.’ ”

That includes bringing the vaccine to English language learner classes at the community college, an event at a local food store and taqueria and another at the opening of new basketball courts — events that together vaccinated about 120 people.  

Disinformation slows vaccinations

During the last days of the school year, Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin brought vaccines to the high school gym for kids 12 and older.

Austin Public Schools success coach Robin Garcia was there to help Spanish-speaking students and families get registered for shots. 

Typically, Garcia helps Spanish-speaking students and their families on everything from attendance issues to grades. But during the pandemic, she says her job has shifted to helping these families navigate the pandemic — how to quarantine, where to get tested and now, how to get the vaccine. 

A lot want the shot, but Garcia says some of her families are still hesitant.

"Basically all they're telling me is that they aren't quite ready yet,” she said. “And I don't know if that means they are still waiting for more information, to see how people are reacting to the vaccine."

In these situations, Garcia shares her own experiences with the vaccine. 

“I got the shot, and I'm fine, and I'm here and I'm doing my part for the community and the school,” she said. 

Just as the clinic was wrapping up, Elsi Yesenia Flores arrived with her mother to get her second shot. Garcia rushed over to help interpret.

Flores, who is 17, said she was at first scared to get vaccinated “for the reactions that would happen.”

But knowing her mother, Yensi Ribas, had already gotten her second dose helped ease that fear. 

Ribas had been scared to get vaccinated, too. She'd already been quite sick with COVID-19, and thought the vaccine might make her feel terrible all over again — or, worse, kill her.

Disinformation about the shot gave her pause, too.

Ribas heard that a lot of people were dying due to the vaccine, that it was causing clots in the brain and blood. Blood clots are a rare side effect of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

“But I'm going to take the risk first because I have a lot of family who haven't done it and are really scared,” Ribas said through an interpreter. “I'm going to be the first. if I die, then they won't get it. But if I make it, it will encourage them to get it."

Ultimately, Ribas got it also because she didn't want to get sick with COVID-19 again. 

Now, Ribas says she's trying to talk her extended family into getting vaccinated. She said that so far, she’s convinced a few of them. 

Correction (July 1, 2021): A previous version of this story reported the wrong source of the vaccines. The vaccines came from the Mayo Clinic Health Systems. The story has been updated.