Vaccine information gap for Spanish speakers needs closing, local clinic says

“There’s not a big effort to educate our communities that speak Spanish as a primary language, especially on complex information like science and medical information in a vaccine,” said a pediatrician at Esperanza Health Center.

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The city of Chicago’s COVID-19 dashboard features information in Spanish, but local doctors said there needs to be more outreach on vaccines for Spanish speakers.

City of Chicago

Dr. Nahiris Bahamon says she gets many questions on the COVID-19 vaccine from patients who primarily speak Spanish, and she laments the scarcity of reliable information for people in that community. 

“There’s not a big effort to educate our communities that speak Spanish as a primary language, especially on complex information like science and medical information in a vaccine,” said Bahamon, a pediatrician at Esperanza Health Center in Little Village.

Esperanza Health Centers is a community clinic that serves Chicago’s Latino and mostly Mexican neighborhoods on the Southwest Side, with clinics in Little Village, Gage Park, Marquette Park and Brighton Park.

In January, Esperanza conducted a survey of its patients’ attitudes toward the vaccine. More than 2,000 people responded, with 1,655 of participants citing Spanish as their primary language.

The overwhelming majority of Spanish speakers said they felt comfortable receiving the vaccine, ranging from 72% of 35-44 year olds to 94% of those 65 and over.

Still, 64% questioned how long they’d be protected. When asked to select from a list of concerns about the vaccine, “side effects” was selected by 65% of participants and “safety” by 32%.

To help provide answers for the community, Esperanza stages virtual talks in English and Spanish with medical providers.

Bahamon has led information session in both languages and says a vaccine education campaign — coupled with increased access to healthcare — is key in getting the Latino community inoculated.

“I expect that as we continue to provide new information, show that it’s safe and effective, more people will be open to have a conversation and make the decision to have the vaccine,” she said.

There are efforts being made to provide the Spanish-speaking community with the information they need. Hospitals including Mount Sinai and University of Illinois offer translated web pages.

A Chicago Department of Public Health spokesman said Dr. Geraldine Luna, the director of the department’s COVID-19 Response Bureau, has done interviews with Spanish-language news outlets many times and has a weekly Q&A session with Univision Chicago. 

The city’s COVID-19 website also offers information for residents in Spanish.

While acknowledging the efforts the city and other health organizations have made, Ricardo Cifuentes, vice president of external affairs at Esperanza, said an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to ensure the facts reach everyone.

“It’s going to take everyone,” he said. “It’s going to take providers, public health experts, family members. Everyone has a role to play in educating around the vaccine.”

COVID-19 has hit the Latino community hard, and those with lingering questions on the vaccine may choose to delay getting injected, potentially prolonging the pandemic.

So far, Black and Latino Chicagoans are trailing their white counterparts in COVID-19 vaccinations. As of Jan. 30, Latinos make up 19.9% of those vaccinated and Black residents account for 19%, while 49.7% are white, according to most recent city data.

Cifuentes said addressing the community’s most prevalent concerns is key to building their trust in the vaccine.

“I think that’s really important to recognize as we think about messaging and how we communicate about the vaccine to people who might be hesitant,” he said.

Without easy access to dependable information, Bahamon said, residents could turn to the web for their fact finding, where anything can be manipulated to look legit, potentially driving further mistrust.

“People can post false things and make it look pretty and make it seem like it’s the truth, but it’s not. Like all communities, my patients have access to this information too. It might be false but its out there,” she said.

In a brief last month, the Brookings Institution, a public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., urged health experts to recognize that Latinos have been saturated with vaccine misinformation, a necessary step to overcome fears within the community and spur vaccination efforts.

“Educating, doing town halls, disseminating information, engaging the Spanish language media, even the English language media for the Hispanic population is really going to be key,” Cifuentes said.

And as more people get shots in the months ahead, Cifuentes added, attitudes toward the vaccine could improve and residents would have fewer questions.

“If I were to do the survey, you know two or three months in the future, I’m sure those numbers would change,” he said. “As time passes and people see those images of people getting the vaccine staying healthy and nothing scary happening.”

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