The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Latino community particularly hard, and information about the virus is not always readily available in Spanish at the local level. To answer questions and fill information gaps, Side Effects Public Media convened a panel of three health workers who work closely with Latino Hoosiers throughout the state. Side Effects reporter Sebastián Martínez Valdivia spoke with Gabriela Lemus, community health worker for Health Visions Midwest in Fort Wayne; Indianapolis-based pulmonary disease specialist Dr. Jorge Morales-Estrella; and Guillermo Guevara, community health worker and multicultural liaison at Echo Division Street Family Clinic in Evansville.
The conversation has been condensed for length.
What are some of the most important points that the public needs to know about the vaccine?
Dr. Morales-Estrella: The vaccine has been well tested through large clinical studies. For example, the Pfizer vaccine was tested on 40,000 people. True, they did it quickly due to the urgency, but they ensured a large test group and demonstrated that it is 100% effective in reducing severe illness. It has been FDA-approved for emergency use. I have no hesitation about receiving it.
Gabriela Lemus: They already distributed the vaccine in a hospital in Fort Wayne, and there have been no reports of adverse reactions. Since the Hispanic community is more susceptible to chronic conditions, we need to be cautious, but we must also think not only about ourselves but about protecting our community.
When you share information with people about the safety of the vaccine, how have people responded?
Gabriela Lemus: While many say they will receive the vaccine; others say they will not, for religious reasons and because they have heard concerns about certain ingredients. Many ask how the virus affects children and what the long-term effects are. I tell them that we must responsibly educate ourselves directly from trustworthy, expert sources, and not rely on what our neighbors and family members say. We must be very careful of commenting and sharing our opinions because we may inadvertently influence others who may take our opinions as facts.
What are some common misconceptions/misinformation you are hearing about the vaccines from community members?
Guillermo Guevara: One factor that causes undocumented community members to delay seeking resources is the fear that they will be reported. It is important for them to understand that we have nothing to do with immigration; we are a public health clinic, and we help anyone regardless of their immigration or citizenship status.
There are also people who do not want to get tested because they say that it is expensive. Those without insurance will not be responsible for any cost. If they receive a bill, they should bring it to us, and we will have the charge removed. Our community needs to know that there is no cost to them if they do not have insurance. If they do receive a bill, they may bring it to us, and we will handle it.
Gabriela Lemus: There is still some misinformation that leads some people in our community to blame others for spreading the virus, so we need to educate about asymptomatic spread and the importance of wearing
masks, washing hands and using hand sanitizer.
Now that we are in flu season, how can we differentiate between symptoms of a cold versus those of COVID-19?
Dr. Morales-Estrella: Most COVID symptoms are the same as those associated with the flu, and while the loss of smell or taste is not specific to COVID-19, they are unique enough that a person with those symptoms should be tested. If someone shows any symptoms, they should assume they have COVID and get tested.
Dr. Morales-Estrella: We believe that there is a large percentage, possibly up to 20% of those infected with COVID-19 who are asymptomatic, which is why the virus has managed to spread so easily. These people do not know that they are contagious, so they go about their daily lives without taking precautions or realizing that they are infecting others. Children are even more likely to be asymptomatic; they have less chance of becoming seriously ill, but they are still a vector through which the disease is spread.
How do you try to provide accurate information when there is such prevalence of informal channels such as word of mouth?
Guillermo Guevara: We try to keep our community updated through flyers, pamphlets and community talks with healthcare providers and doctors. In our small community, we have seen an increased interest in staying educated. We try to concentrate information in markets, bakeries and butcher shops that the Latino community tends to frequent in Evansville.
Gabriela Lemus: Indiana Minority Health Coalition works directly with us as well as the Indiana Health Department. We receive the latest information from a doctor through Zoom. I share links to official sources at the state level directly to community members, so they can read and see it for themselves. Our community trusts us to provide them with accurate information.
What advice do you have for those who have grown tired of the pandemic and want to return to normal life?
Guillermo Guevara: We have seen an increase in mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and we try to offer encouragement, speaking one on one or in family groups. We have collaborated with social workers and family groups to offer options, so people know they are not alone.
Gabriela Lemus: I tell them that we cannot only focus on the negative. This experience has shown us that money is not the solution for everything. Now is the time to show solidarity, to be with family and to help our neighbors in need. We have to remember that people have made the best of this opportunity to come together to stop this pandemic.
Dr. Morales-Estrella: This too will pass; we have advanced hospitals and technology to keep us connected, and we have a tremendous opportunity thanks to having a vaccine so quickly. While the Hispanic population is disproportionately vulnerable to this virus, we are also a community that perseveres, and we have an opportunity to be an example for other communities by getting vaccinated as a way of protecting not only ourselves but also others.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.