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Massive outreach effort brings reluctant Hispanics into COVID clinics

The campaign ratcheted up in Hillsborough when health authorities temporarily stopped administering the the popular, one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Luis Soto, pastor at Iglesia Tampa Bay, works with Cielo Gomez of the Mexican Consulate in Orlando to place signs at Soto's Iglesia Tampa Bay Church during a vaccination clinic April 15. Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine were administered to 250 people.
Luis Soto, pastor at Iglesia Tampa Bay, works with Cielo Gomez of the Mexican Consulate in Orlando to place signs at Soto's Iglesia Tampa Bay Church during a vaccination clinic April 15. Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine were administered to 250 people. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Apr. 23

TAMPA — Luz Losso waited until mid-April to get vaccinated.

She didn’t rush to get in line in early March, when Florida authorities extended eligibility to anyone 60 and older like her. She had doubts about whether the vaccine works and about whether she qualified to get one because of her immigration status.

“There were several things that made me hesitate,” Losso said.

Finally, she changed her mind, persuaded by a massive information campaign aimed at Hispanics and backed by a host of public and private interests — churches, activists, nonprofits, the Florida Health Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and even foreign governments.

Their tools include seminars, mobile billboards and messages on Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and WhatsApp.

Losso, a 60-year-old Colombian immigrant, received her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at Iglesia Tampa Bay on North Nebraska Avenue.

Cristina Gomez of Tampa, left, speaks with Cielo Gomez of the Mexican Consulate during a vaccination clinic at Iglesia Tampa Bay. Gomez said it took some convincing to get her to come in for her first shot.
Cristina Gomez of Tampa, left, speaks with Cielo Gomez of the Mexican Consulate during a vaccination clinic at Iglesia Tampa Bay. Gomez said it took some convincing to get her to come in for her first shot. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The church joined half a dozen houses of worship and nonprofits to launch an outreach effort last week, employing digital fliers and online chats in Spanish. The effort came just as health authorities paused the popular, one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. They wanted to look deeper into six cases where women who had received the vaccine developed unexpected blood clots.

“Many began to ask what was happening,” said Luis Soto, 50, the Puerto Rican-born pastor of Iglesia Tampa Bay. “So our social networks, volunteers, friends and local groups helped allay fears with messages and recommendations.”

It’s an uphill battle, Soto said.

“Disinformation is doing a lot of damage, as much as the pandemic itself,” he said. “Any initiative in Spanish helps us to deal with the crisis.”

Soto’s church, tucked into a strip mall, has more than 700 followers, most of them from Central America. Soto has led the church for five years and has worked more than a decade helping low-income people in the Tampa area.

Last month, the Mexican Consulate in Orlando contacted him about organizing a vaccination hub and communication effort, said vice consul Javier De La Vega. The result was a clinic at the church April 15 where 250 people were vaccinated — one of 12 mobile clinics the consulate has helped organize in Plant City, Dover, Wimauma and Tampa.

All told, the clinics have vaccinated 6,918 people and 3,098 farmworkers, De La Vega said.

“We have joined efforts to coordinate vaccines so they reach the places where people work and the communities where those most in need are living,” he said.

Cristina Gomez, 42, a wife and mother of two, got her vaccination at Iglesia Tampa Bay — but it took some convincing. First, she watched a virtual seminar organized by the Wimauma nonprofit Enterprising Latinas.

“It helped me a lot,” said Gomez, who entered the country illegally from Mexico two decades ago. “It gave me peace of mind and certainty that the vaccine is safe.”

Enterprising Latinas hosted a live vaccination discussion April 13 that drew about 120 views to its Facebook page. The presenters were Ileana Cintron, deputy director of the group, and Dr. Griselle Figueredo with Sanitas-West Florida, part of a medical network serving Florida Blue insurance patients.

One of their messages: You can trust the Food and Drug Administration.

“Many people wonder if the vaccine is safe, and unfortunately, this comes from a lack of information,” Figueredo said in Spanish. “In the case of the United States, the FDA has taken all the steps, in a very short time, to establish that this is a safe vaccine.”

Losso, the Colombian immigrant, said that what helped persuade her were the notices she saw on the Facebook page of Iglesia Tampa Bay and an article in Spanish on the AARP Facebook page about five Hispanic people who received the vaccine.

She also credited discussions with Pastor Soto and his volunteers.

“It works like a big chain,” Losso said.

Slowly, the chain is building, said Cintron with Enterprising Latinas.

“We must continue to work with other community partners to distribute and get our message across, especially among the youth,” Cintron said.

The United for Wimauma Coalition is among those partners. UnidosUs, the largest Hispanic civil rights organization in the United States, has also joined the educational campaign in Tampa, she said.

These efforts are most effective when they are locally executed, state-managed and federally supported, said Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, FEMA spokeswoman in Atlanta.

“Everyone has a part to play in getting Floridians vaccinated and ending the pandemic,” Paulk-Buchanan said.

Hispanics and Blacks in Florida still are getting vaccinated at a rate well below whites, according an analysis released Monday by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Whites in Florida were 2.1 times more likely to have been vaccinated than Blacks and 1.6 times more likely than Hispanic people. This is despite the fact that these minority groups have a higher share of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

The state of Florida has partnered with 250 churches to administer more than 90,000 vaccination doses and has knocked on more than half a million doors in an effort to reach underserved communities in Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville, said Health Department spokesman Jason Mahon.

Cielo Gomez, 39, who works at the Mexican Consulate and founded the nonprofit Casa Chiapas in Tampa, is using her Facebook and WhatsApp pages to spread the word — posting newsletters from her office and the Health Department.

“We are all together in this effort,” Gomez said.

So is activist Isaret Jeffers, founder of Colectivo Arbol, a nonprofit based in Tarpon Springs. Her group has been organizing clinics and vaccinations for farmworkers across Central Florida.

“Today, more than ever,” Jeffers said, “information means power.”

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