“Trusted Messengers” Key To Vaccinating Under-Served Communities

by: Christopher J. Beale for Outword Magazine

For street-level organizations working to vaccinate under-served communities in Sacramento County, vaccine availability isn’t the biggest hurdle they face. Misinformation, digital and language barriers, economic issues, and general distrust of the government are keeping members of the Native, LGBT, Asian and communities of color in Sacramento County from getting vaccinated.

So far, 60% of those infected with COVID-19 in Sacramento County’s are working age adults (18-59). But when you zoom in on deaths, “One of the populations hardest hit were the elderly, about 80% of (those dead) were in long-term care facilities,” says Dr. Olivia Kasirye, Sacramento Public Health Officer. This is why vaccinating the elderly population has been such a priority across the country. But they aren’t the only high-risk group.

“Since COVID-19 started a year ago, we’ve suffered multiple deaths in our community,” says Britta Guerrero, CEO of the Sacramento Native American Health Center (SNAHC), “This is mostly due to limited access. Just because you give someone a Medi-Cal card, that does not ensure that patients know how to use health insurance benefits.” Guerrero says the SNAHC team is using education to combat those access challenges , “We help our patients enroll in Medi-Cal and familiarize themselves with the managed care plans and the providers within the network. So that the patient understands how to actually utilize Medi-Cal benefits.”

Each community has unique needs when it comes to vaccination. “Our life expectancy rates are, on average, 10 years shorter than dominant society, “ adds Guerrero, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, “So, in order to protect our community, we decided to start vaccinating all Native Americans 18 and older.” These vaccines come from Indian Health Services; for other non-Native members of the community, SNAHC uses a vaccine allotment from Sacramento County. “We are vaccinating patients 50 and over, and community members 65 and older.”

“The pandemic did not create inequities, but it further exacerbated a lot of inequities,” says Mike Nguy, health equity lead for Sacramento County Public Health. One of those inequities is the way people receive information, like so-called “digital barriers.” These are tech or internet-access-related issues keeping people from getting their shot, like older folks who may not be able to make a vaccine appointment without assistance. Britta Guerrero says the first step is taking vaccines directly to those people, “We’re working with our council member Katie Venezuela to get into low-income housing environments and vaccinate elders.” In addition to their work with the native community, Guerrero says  SNAHC is, “prioritizing hard-to-reach populations like the LGBT community.”

“A lot of people were left with concerns that if they sought healthcare, that could jeopardize their immigration status,” says Rachel Rios of the La Familia Counseling Center, who pushed for a Spanish-speaking test site, “where people, especially those of mixed immigration status or who  are undocumented can feel comfortable giving their information and having a COVID-19 test.”

The Asian community has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, “you had a former President  calling this the Chinese virus,” says Stephanie Nguyen of Asian Resources, “from right then and there we had hate crimes coming at us.”

“I assisted my parents at a fender-bender not too long ago. The individual was coming at them and accusing them (of things),” Nguyen continues, “my parents are very limited English, and they weren’t sure how to handle it.” When she arrived at the scene and approached the other driver to talk things through. The driver, “said to me, “back up, I don’t want any of your Coronavirus!’”

Disinformation, as well as general distrust of drug companies and the government administering it, have all contributed to confusion surrounding the vaccines, “I did not trust the Trump administration at all, so I was very skeptical,” says Truett Calvert, a thirty-something gay man who works in the funeral industry, “I thought it was too fast, not tested enough, a lot of “what ifs” did go through my head.” Truett Calvert’s father died of COVID-19, “23 days in the hospital, the last week of his life he was on a ventilator. I did not get to say goodbye to my Dad.”

A “trusted messenger,” in the form of Truett’s step-mother, a nurse, intervened. She knew he was considering skipping the vaccine. At the funeral, she said to Calvert, “Are you an idiot? Do you want to end up like him?”

Calvert had a change of heart, and was vaccinated in January.

Dr. Olivia Kasirye says that it’s up to these “trusted messengers” to spread the word to mis-informed, or digitally disconnected communities. Not only about the safety of the vaccines available, “we are very fortunate to have three very effective vaccines that we can use,“ but also to help  quell the debate over which is the  best of the three. “At this point, when we have so few doses available...the vaccine  available to you is the best one.”

“One time we were talking in a group with a pastor, and some of the congregants were there,” recounts Kasirye. The conversation turned to hesitancy toward the vaccine, and how to address it, “One of the congregants said, “if my pastor tells me to get vaccinated, I will.” If folks listen to you...speak up.

The best way to protect your community, is to seek truthful information from reputable sources, some of which are included below - and spread the word. “(We) really don’t know what the trauma is that we’re experiencing,” says Britta Guerrero, “until we all come back together - and see who’s missing.”




Sacramento County Department of Public Health - COVID-19
La Familia Counseling Center
Sacramento Native American Health Center
Asian Resources
Hmong Innovating Politics

Sacramento LGBTQIA Community Center
One Community Health


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