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Latino COVID-19 vaccination numbers were lagging in Sonoma County, but now they’re catching up. Here’s why

By October 13, 2021COVID-19

The two visited restaurants and eateries, retail shops and other businesses in search of the unvaccinated. At a laundromat inside the Dutton Plaza at Dutton Avenue and Sebastopol Road, the two outreach workers encountered a Latina mother with a young infant who said her husband was vaccinated two months ago but she did not want to.

The woman said she was had reservations about the vaccines because they were “rushed” and she was concerned about the long-term side effects. “I had the same concerns,” Gonzalez told the woman.

Gonzalez explained that the COVID-19 vaccine developers used methods that had been around for years and didn’t skip any testing steps. “They were making the vaccine while the trials were going on,” she said.

At the laundromat, they encountered a young Latino man waiting for his laundry who said he only received a single dose of vaccine because he had side effects and felt “strange” for a couple of days after. “But I think I’ll go get the other shot,” he said.

Hours later, Gonzelez and Woodard were both working at a pop-up vaccine clinic at Casa Grande High School. Gonzalez, who attended Casa Grande and is a recent graduate of Sonoma State University, said she had never seen so much of Sonoma County until she started doing vaccine outreach.

Gonzalez said she and others on the county’s outreach team started out as contact tracers and case investigators, some of them working through the winter surge, a deadly period that made her and others realize the need for more aggressive prevention strategies.

“We kind of just saw the need to reach out to people with education before they became a positive COVID case,” she said. “A lot of the reasons people were getting COVID was because they didn’t know how to prevent it.”

Gonzalez said it didn’t take long for her to realize that the pandemic was having an outsized impact on the local Latino community, resulting in a disproportionate share of the county’s 40,000 official infections. Latinos comprise 57% of these infections, more than double their share of the population.

That same work was being done in rural areas of the county, including Cloverdale, where new organizations like La Familia Sana were spearheading efforts around health education and vaccine safety and availability for local farmworkers.

The work of people like Gonzalez and the ongoing operation of sites like the Roseland vaccine clinic, which took over the local library during the pandemic, helped build the kind of momentum needed to increase vaccination rates among Latinos.

Gaby Bernal-Leroi, chief operating officer of Santa Rosa Community Health, the county’s largest local network of primary care clinics, said the summer surge in new COVID cases was also a big motivator for Latino residents who were hesitant about getting inoculated.

“Some of the people that may have been on the fence about getting the vaccine decided that, ‘OK, this is my time to get the vaccine.’” she said. “I think that definitely put some fear in people. Our role has just been to provide access to vaccine and to provide accurate information.”

Kaiser dollars

Kaiser Permanente, the county’s largest health care provider, distributed $5 million in Northern California — $250,000 in Santa Rosa area — to local groups like the Latino Service Providers, Raizes Collective and La Luz Center in Sonoma Valley and KBBF radio to promote vaccine acceptance.

The funds directly support such things as general vaccine education, staffing and translation at vaccine pop-up clinics, and outreach in hard-to-reach areas with a focus on registering community members for vaccine appointments. At KBBF, the funding also supported countywide education campaign to build vaccine confidence in the African American community.

Dr. Kendal L. Hamann, Kaiser’s lead physician for COVID-19 vaccinations in Santa Rosa, said a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Latinos often report experiencing more barriers to receiving the vaccine, including fears about missing work, not being able to get the vaccine from a trusted place or difficulty traveling to the vaccine site.

Hamann, who is Kaiser’s local chief of endocrinology, oversees the provider’s COVID vaccine clinics at its facilities, as well as pop-up clinics in the community. Collaboration with local public health staff and community groups and school administrators has helped direct efforts to where the greatest need is, she said.

“We know that high vaccination rates will help our communities and our most vulnerable individuals stay healthy,” Hamman said.

An example of these initiatives recently took place at the Roseland vaccine clinic, where a number of local organizations gathered for an event that was broadcast on Facebook Live by a local online Spanish-language media program called Saber de Poder.

The three hosts of the program, which translates to “The Power of Knowledge,” encouraged local Latino residents to come out to the event, which also provided information about local food programs, legal services and financial assistance.

During the live online broadcast, the players who for months have been canvassing Latino neighborhoods and staffing pop-up clinics, made their best pitch to get people to come out to the event.

“Come and get vaccinated, they always have all three vaccines here, the Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson and the Moderna,” said Noemi Palomino, president of Roseland Community Building Initiative, speaking in Spanish.

“You can also get a booster, and keep in mind, you don’t need an appointment, you won’t be asked for any papers or your immigration status and the clinic is bilingual,” she said.

Gullixson, the county spokesman, said the next key strategy for getting more Latinos vaccinating involves working with schools, pediatricians and trusted medical providers for when the vaccine is authorized for children 5 to 11.

Federal emergency authorization is expected to be granted in late October or early November.

For Hernandez, the Petaluma mom, that authorization will provide her 8-year-old daughter with the best protection yet against the virus.

Shielding her daughter during the pandemic was one of the main reasons she encouraged everyone in her family to be vaccinated.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @pressreno.

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